New Cork manager Keith Ricken takes over 'most unloved' team in Ireland

Christy O'Connor profiles the track record of the Rebel bainisteoir charged with reviving the footballers' fortunes
New Cork manager Keith Ricken takes over 'most unloved' team in Ireland

Keith Ricken has been appointed as the new Cork football manager, having served his apprenticeship at U20 and in the Sigerson Cup. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

AFTER Cork Institute of Technology were beaten in the 2009 Higher Education Football League by the Garda College, their manager Keith Ricken had a showdown with the players.

Ricken was concerned with their performance in the lead-up to the Sigerson Cup, which CIT were hosting. 

After a frank exchange of views were expressed by both sides, the squad immediately convened a meeting and drew up a charter as to the best means of moving forward.

Paul Kerrigan later told his father, Jimmy that it was the key moment in their journey to securing CIT’s first Sigerson Cup title. 

That blueprint worked because it was broken down into five different sections, with an emphasis on the players’ positives and a desire to work on their weaknesses.

Eleven of that starting CIT team were from Cork, six of whom were on the senior panel at the time, with three starting in the 2010 All-Ireland final win – Kerrigan, Daniel Goulding and Colm O’Neill.

Ricken has spent most of his managerial/coaching life developing players but, as he showed during that Sigerson success, much of his focus has been on developing players as people first.

Shortly after Cork defeated Kerry in an epic Munster U20 semi-final in July, Ricken gave an interview on TG4 which perfectly encapsulated his approach towards management.

“The worst you’ll do in this life out there (on the pitch) is lose a match,” he said. 

“But in your own time, you’ll learn when the proverbial hits the fan that you can fall back on what you’ve learned, and that you can step up. 

Sport is a safe environment for players to learn about life, to step up into manhood, to take responsibility and ownership and look to the future with positivity.” 

Ricken also said something in that interview which he first referred to in his post-match comments on TG4 after Cork defeated Tyrone in the 2019 All-Ireland U20 semi-final.

“I am always of the belief that with young men you want to give them confidence and to teach them how to fly,” he said that afternoon in 2019. 

“If you teach them how to fly, you don’t then shoot them down.

“Bringing them back down to earth (after the Munster final) is the last place, maybe, I want them. I want them thinking positively. 

"We should be praising their achievements and they should bask in them. But, also, use that achievement as a stepping stone.” 

 Strong leadership inspires people and Ricken’s players largely operate with the confidence he has instilled in them.

Even people who don’t know Ricken are taken in by him. 

He is a dream TV interview, but Ricken has always been a breath of fresh air in how he has continually portrayed Cork football, especially in how he has always sought to remove the negativity that has appeared encrypted into Cork’s footballing DNA for most of the last 10 years.

His appointment this week may not have been the statement/high-profile one Cork football might have hoped for – especially when there was some clamour for a big-name outside appointment. 

On the other hand, Ricken would be seen locally as a kind of ‘people’s champion’, especially in the context of how he will bring some excitement and entertainment to a role that has too often been portrayed and defined by dreariness and drudgery.

UNLOVED

The Cork senior footballers may remain Gaelic football’s most ‘unloved team’ but Ricken will certainly aim to bring back some of that love, mostly through the sheer force of his personality.

It would be wrong though, to believe that Ricken just love-bombs his players to make them feel better about themselves so they can grow into becoming better footballers. The environment set by the manager and coach largely creates the person in that environment. 

“The more we (the coaches) own and take on responsibility,” said Ricken at the GAA’s Coaching Conference in January 2020 “the less resilient they (the players) become.” 

Keith Ricken speaking at the GAA Games Development Conference in Croke Park. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Keith Ricken speaking at the GAA Games Development Conference in Croke Park. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

 Ricken has always had a developmental approach towards his teams; 19 of the 36 players on this year’s U20 squad are underage again next year. He will infuse the squad with plenty of young blood but U20 is a different world from senior and the biggest test of Ricken’s managerial career will be in trying to hothouse those young players and make them more resilient to survive the dog-eat-dog world of senior championship.

On top of all that, Ricken will have to convince the older and more established players that he is more than just good a good orator and man-manager. The demands from players at senior level are becoming greater every year. 

That environment is also far more brutal and unforgiving for managers, no matter how much public support and goodwill they have behind them.

Ricken will deal with all those challenges in his calm, measured manner. 

His post-match interview after the U20 win against Kerry in July underlined how Ricken never gets too high or too low after a game. 

That’s certainly an attitude that could foster much-needed stability to a Cork footballing culture that’s too often exposed to wildly oscillating emotions.

In 2019, Ricken spoke about appreciating the frustrations perennially associated with Cork football but never experiencing that negativity, or that if he did, Ricken just chose to “ignore it”.

That may be much harder to do so at senior level but Ricken will remain guided by his core philosophy, going about his business in a positive, professional, caring and honest manner, seeking to bring the feel-good factor back to the Cork players and supporters along the journey.

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