Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Declan Bogue: Goodbyes can be short, but they are seldom sweet

Donal Óg Cusack's services are no longer needed by Cork
Donal Óg Cusack's services are no longer needed by Cork

Does reminiscing on five years ago count as nostalgia? The answer is, it depends on how much the world has changed since.

We think back to those crazy few months at the start of 2008, and the GAA Civil War in Cork. Teddy Holland accepted the job of football manager in the midst of a dispute between players and county board over who should pick team selectors.

The players wanted the manager to be in ultimate control of who should be his lieutenants. The county board felt that was their call. It didn't help that powerful administrative figures were drawn to placing themselves in the inner sanctum of the team.

In sympathy, the county hurlers also withdrew their services, necessitating the pulling out of the Waterford Crystal Cup, as well as opening league games against Waterford and Kilkenny.

While they eventually returned, it was felt that they would see the year out and start again after their own manager Gerald McCarthy's departure.

When McCarthy and the county board dug their heels in, the two sides became polarised. A march in support of the striking hurlers this month four years ago attracted thousands.

Those were mad times. People around the fringes of these happenings lost their humanity entirely when Gerald McCarthy received death threats. Maybe they hadn't any humanity at all.

Photographers managed to get a snap of Des Bishop – the oxymoronic comedian – lending his support for the Rebels. It couldn't have been any more cringeworthy if he was wearing a jester's hat heading up Patrick Street.

Behind all the nonsense was a brave point being made by that tight group of achievers. Cork hurling was bigger than individuals, it was bigger than that group of players, and they recognised it by going on strike.

They were aware that their actions could be used by board officers and future managers as a stick to beat them with. But they refused to let Cork GAA become an old boys' network, run by the board for self-glorification.

Some of the things they did and some of the points they made have been lost in translation ever since.

When Kilkenny refused to join them in a protest during the pre-match parade before the 2002 National League final, it left their relationship sulphurous. Indiscreet comments made by Donal Óg Cusack to the effect that Kilkenny were the 'Stepford Wives' of hurling were punished by a series of hammerings, opening up gashes and shovelling the salt into wounds.

There are two strands to this however. At the time, Cork had serious issues with their treatment. Months earlier they spent a bus journey home from a league match in Derry, with Niall McCarthy bleeding from a head wound. They had no medical staff present and when they arrived back in Cork, McCarthy had to travel to the hospital alone to be seen to.

Kilkenny never had to cope with that kind of neglect. Kilkenny were also in the business of becoming the greatest team ever. It suited them to see Cork torn apart by internal strife. Now, the Rebels are an irrelevance.

Yet in order to move forward, certain players had to become figureheads. It wasn't easy. Diarmuid O'Sullivan came into direct conflict with his own father, Jerry, who was the county chairman.

Dónal Óg Cusack was recognised as the most articulate of the group and so was sent to do many of the interviews with radio stations and newspapers putting forward their views and their stance. As well as re-inventing the role of goalkeeper in hurling, Cusack is the first openly homosexual hurler after he revealed such in his autobiography.

For that alone, the GAA should be grateful to Cusack.

Last week, it appeared that Cusack's time was over as an inter-county hurler when manager Jimmy Barry Murphy informed him he would not be his first choice.

In the GAA, we are not good at goodbyes. When Cusack was coming onstream to the Cork team in the late 90's under JBM's first spell, his legendary predecessor Ger Cunningham remained on the panel for a year to school the young Cusack. Indeed, Cunningham's eventual departure, wistfully recalled in Cusack's memoir of him walking out the gate and taking all that Cork history with him, was extremely dignified.

Normally, GAA goodbyes are cold, emotionless affairs. Down players always talk of 'the letter' which informs them their services are no longer required. It leaves them cold that they never get a phone call, but it is more than most get.

Tony Scullion once famously said he never retired from Derry, they just stopped picking him.

Cusack may not get a chance for a proper goodbye. But some day, when Cork GAA is healthy again, he will come back as manager.

And then the healing will begin.

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