John Cleary ticks all the boxes for Cork football manager

The highly decorated former player turned successful under-age chief gets cracking on his three-year stint
John Cleary ticks all the boxes for Cork football manager

Cork manager John Cleary speaks to his players after the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final loss to Dublin. Pic: Daire Brennan, Sportsfile

IN his own mind John Cleary had probably given up on the hope of ever being the Cork football manager.

It’s not that the Castlehaven great didn’t have the credentials, but every time the position became vacant the job went elsewhere even though Cleary’s name was inevitably linked to the role.

Next season will be a decade since his last managerial role with Cork-notwithstanding the interim position he held this year having been originally enlisted as coach-during which four different managers held the post.

Cleary was Cork U21 boss between 2008 and 2013, a successful spell which yielded four Munster titles and an All-Ireland in 09, having been a selector from 04 to 07, as well, in another fruitful period.

When 2010 Sam Maguire Cup winning manager Conor Counihan rode off into the sunset three years later, Cleary was an obvious choice to step into the breach.

Cork, though, opted for Brian Cuthbert, who was there for two years before Peadar Healy took over for a similar spell in 2016.

After that, Ronan McCarthy was appointed between 2018 to 2021 with Keith Ricken given the nod at the end of last season.

Over the years, the grapevine had it that the county board and Cleary couldn’t agree terms on one occasion, going their separate ways and that another time Cleary didn’t express an interest.

Either way, what transpired turned out to the benefit of Cork Ladies Football as Cleary guided the minors to four All-Irelands between 2015 and 19 and only losing out in 2018, embellishing a managerial record that was already packed with notable achievements.

The old adage of ‘better late than never’ applies here and with the county board rubberstamping his appointment during the week, Cleary can now begin looking ahead to the 2023 season, when Cork start out in a very competitive division 2.

But, it’s the championship which will forever be the yardstick and next year’s All-Ireland will be different again, comprising 16 teams divided into four groups with the winners progressing to the quarter-finals and the second and third placed teams playing off.

The 16 teams will comprise the provincial finalists and the next best eight counties based on their league rankings.

The remaining 16 sides will play for the Tailteann Cup, won this year by Cavan in a straight knock-out format, though that will also change to a round-robin of four groups of four.

Cleary’s credentials as player, selector, manager/coach stack up solidly and are above reproach.

And anyone enquiring about his innings as a player with both the Haven and Cork better leave time for the answer to ‘show us your medals’.

An All-Ireland minor in 1981, U21 three years later and a priceless pair of Celtic Cross medals in 1989 and 1990 adorn his inter-county collection without even mentioning his multiple Munster triumphs.

Add in county titles with the Haven in 1989 and 1994, in addition to Munster Club success, and you get a sense the sideboard is fairly jammed.

But, just as impressive and probably even more laudable, is Cleary’s record on the other side of the whitewash, obviously with Cork, but with the Haven, too, a selector in 2012 and 2013, when the Andy Scannell Cup ventured west.

His first involvement with the U21s came during Tony Leahy’s impressive reign as manager between 2004 and 07 with Cork going unbeaten in Munster, defeating Kerry the first year in the final and then Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary, and claiming the All-Ireland in 07.

Daniel Goulding’s late free helped Cork edge Laois by 2-10 to 0-15 after also having a point to spare over Armagh in the semi-final, a team featuring Michael Shields, Eoin Cadogan, Ray Carey, Fintan Goold, Paul Kerrigan and Colm O’Neill.

Cleary succeeded Leahy the following season, again producing outstanding results in a near carbon copy of four Munsters in 09, 2011, 12 and 13 and an All-Ireland in 09.

A common thread ran through those teams, a never-say-die attitude that helped Cork out of many a scrape like Noel Galvin’s late goal to break Tipp hearts in the Munster final and Colm O’Driscoll repeating the trick against Down in the All-Ireland decider.

It's the hallmark of all Cleary teams and one that supporters can look forward to in the next three seasons.

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