Seán Óg Ó hAilpín can see why people are beginning to harp back to 1999, writes Brendan O’Brien.
The similarities with what has happened in recent weeks are just too obvious to ignore: an unheralded Cork side with a batch of younger faces overcoming Waterford in a Munster semi-final and meeting Clare in the decider. And a team playing with skill, heart, and at pace.
“The big difference — and this is more kudos to these players than ours — is that these young fellas have had no glory at underage at all,” said the 40-year old who won the first of three All-Ireland titles with the county under Jimmy Barry-Murphy 18 years ago.
“We came off the back of a couple of good minor years and two All-Irelands at U21 so we were confident young fellas but these lads haven’t had that background. But they have a natural maturity and self-belief. That makes this squad and their achievements all the more impressive.”
What he could have added but didn’t was the fact that his Cork vintage had given some notice of their intent a year earlier when claiming the 1998 NHL title. The current crop has sprung up almost overnight by comparison.
He hadn’t been fully convinced by talk of a rebirth after the quarter-final defeat of Tipperary. Too open, he thought. Like a challenge game. Could Cork do it back-to-back? Could they stitch consistency into their summer? He feels that much has been answered now.
“Not alone did they do it (against Waterford) but they did it more emphatically than I thought. I thought they were 10 points a better team. I looked at the clock at around 53 minutes and thought ‘this game is over’. There was no energy from Waterford compared to the last couple of years. All day their backs were working overtime trying to clear the ball while Cork were fantastic as a unit and coming out too easily. Waterford didn’t seem up for the fight at all.”
Ó hAilpín isn’t losing the run of himself yet. He hasn’t yet pencilled in the Monday evening of September 4 to take in a victorious homecoming parade but he has seen enough since May 21 to say that Cork are building a side capable of challenging at that level after a couple of tough years. He could see that something akin to this was coming.
He and Tom Kenny assumed the reins with the UCC Freshers side this season and among the players under their guidance were Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, and Shane Kingston. He could see that these were players “destined” for big things.
If anything has surprised him, it is the speed with which it has all happened. He thought those players would make great leadership figures for a younger generation again down the line but here they are now as key cogs in a squad looking to claim what would be only a second Munster title for Cork since 2003.
“What has also been fantastic for me is the way the team have got back their mojo. The likes of Séamus Harnedy coming back to serious form, Conor Lehane, Patrick Horgan.
“The improvement in Damien Cahalane’s hurling over the past year has been phenomenal — Bill Cooper, who is so underrated — they’re at a phase in their hurling career where it’s do or die. Don’t die wondering and get all the cards on the table.”
Wexford have cornered the market in romance, and Galway would make for a more agreeable All-Ireland champion among the neutrals, but Cork’s reemergence is another pillar to an increasingly pleasing and impressive hurling summer and they will start the Munster decider with a new burden in expectation.
“I’d be wary of that even though I can see why they would be favourites. Clare didn’t set the world on fire beating Limerick but two things worry me. One: there’s a game in every team and there’s a game in Clare. If that’s the Munster final, Cork are definitely in a contest.
“Two: my old colleague Dónal Óg (Cusack) is involved with Clare and if anyone knows the Cork psyche, it’s him, and that will be his value to them. We do have a couple of guys in the squad who haven’t won a Munster medal and they’ll be going at it like an All-Ireland final.”
What’s not to like?
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.