My first serious game as manager of Dublin in 2009 took us to Cork that February. We stayed in Fota Island Resort the night before. I certainly wasn’t taking any chances because I, and the team, needed to get off to the best start possible.
There’s always pressure in that first-match scenario. As much as you want to prove to yourself as a manager that you’re going in the right direction, results are the most powerful example to show players that you are. But there was more pressure again on us that afternoon because the game was seen as a gimme.
Cork were in the throes of their third strike. The players had downed tools but Gerald McCarthy had decided to try and steer the ship through the choppy waters by rounding up a raft of players from around the county. With all due respect to the players involved – many of whom were never going to be offered a Cork senior jersey in different circumstances – it was probably, at best, Cork’s third team.
There was a small crowd at the match, mostly because the majority of the Cork public were behind the striking players, but I couldn’t believe the noise the Cork crowd were making. It was almost voracious, raw emotion, which the Cork players were feeding off, and which seemed to have spooked the Dublin lads.
I’ll never forget going down the tunnel at half-time and being taken aback by the ferocity of that emotion. Cork lads were hanging in over the walls, fists pumping, neck-veins bulging as they urged on the players with manic zeal. Those people may have been family members of the players but it was obvious that the civil war within the county was deeper than any of us on the outside could every fully understand. It was even harder again for the Dublin camp to absorb because we probably got sucked in too much to the real truth of the situation beforehand - that most of Cork wanted their team to lose that afternoon.
Dublin felt they couldn’t lose in that situation but it was a hairy afternoon for myself and the lads. The final scoreline was an imposter to the reality of what actually happened. We won by nine points but we were only hanging on with about ten minutes to go. I remember saying a quick prayer to my late father. ‘Hi, give me a dig-out here, will ya?
Despite the desperation I felt during that match, the whole experience was strange for myself; I felt like a first-hand witness to what it must have really felt like for a county to be fully embroiled in civil war. Obviously you can’t compare the horrors and terror of real civil war to a hurling standoff but hurling has always been far more than just a game to Cork. And they’re not called the Rebels for nothing.
You knew it was serious. It had to be when Cork were on their third strike in eight years. I let the Dublin bus off that day after the game and as I was driving back to Clare I remember thinking ‘What kind of a long-term impact is this stuff really going to have on the county?’
As in any war, it often gets worse before it gets better. Gerald eventually walked away. The main players came back. Cork staved off relegation, which seemed inevitable after the subsequent hammerings in some of those early round matches. But, after a decade of success, the show was really grinding to a halt.
Cork returned a year later and should have won a Munster title but they ended that season taking an unmerciful hiding from Kilkenny in an All-Ireland semi-final. That great Cork team was breaking up. It was always going to be hard to pick up the pieces. Cork had consistently struggled at underage. But I’ve often wondered since how much damage those strikes really caused?
At the time, I was fully behind the Cork lads. I could understand their reasons for making the stand. I remember one of my first years on the Clare panel and putting in my expenses at the end of the year for a couple of broken hurleys. The treasurer at the time more or less told me to clear off – he sent me back a photocopied article from the old Cork Examiner, which quoted Christy Ring: “Good hurlers don’t break hurleys.”
If that kind of stuff pissed me off in the early 1990s, you can imagine how frustrated the Cork lads were to be putting up with that same old backward attitude towards player welfare over a decade later.
Donál Óg and his team-mates stood up and fought for a standard for future generations of Cork players. But in any civil war, wounds will open and fester, and the scars may take generations to heal.
The county board certainly have a lot to answer for. When John Allen stepped down in 2006, after Cork had narrowly missed out in the three-in-a-row, the players wanted Ger Cunningham to take over. I always had great time for Gerald McCarthy but appointing him ahead of Ger was a pointed move by the county board that was always bound to lead to strife and tension.
Along with the fallout of those years, it took Cork a long time to get their act together at underage. While other counties were forging ahead, Cork were left behind in establishing Development Squads. The board have to stand indicted there, but who knows what stuff was going on in young fellas’ heads at that time of the strikes too?
Maybe some talented young U14s or U16s had managers or coaches on the other side of the divide, guys who were against the players stance. Was a different message being transmitted to those young players by those managers and coaches, than what was in the public domain? It’s only one of a thousand theories but did that kind of uncertainty and division around the county undermine the confidence of the next generation? Who knows.
I’ve often wondered have Cork existed in a kind of ‘Twilight Zone’ over the last decade. They know that they have the class and the talent. They have the history. Their fathers, uncles, neighbours or clubmates won All-Ireland medals.
I was lucky enough to play with Clare during a time of unprecedented success over Cork. Between 1993-‘98, Clare played Cork four times in the championship and we won each time. When we met Cork again in the 1999 Munster final, we were hot favourites.
As we lined up in the parade beforehand, I could hear this young lad across from me roaring and shouting. “We are Cork boy, we are Cork,” Cusack was loudly declaring. “We have 27 All-Irelands, ye have two.”
I was nearly half tempted to correct him. We had three All-Irelands. Cusack must have forgotten about 1914. I was only laughing across at him. “G’way, ya f***ing eejit.”
But that confidence emanating from Cusack coursed throughout a young Cork side, which beat us, and went on to win the All-Ireland.
Cusack and his crew had won All-Ireland minor and U21 titles. They knew what it took to win at senior level. That team had great players but they had immense leaders too. I still have nightmares from having experienced the force of that leadership in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final, when I was manager of a Clare team that should have put Cork away.
We were six points ahead entering the final quarter. Cork were so much in the horrors that they were forced to take off Ronan Curran and Brian Corcoran, their centre-back and full-forward, and two of their go-to guys.
I often said to Brian Lohan afterwards ‘Would you not have given Corcoran a few pucks, so they might have left him on, and you’d have continued to savage him.’ Instead, Neil Ronan was introduced for Corcoran and he posed a completely different type of threat.Cork reorganised their defence, sending John Gardiner to centre-back, and suddenly a wall appeared across their half-back line that Clare couldn’t breach.
After we’d lost five puckouts in succession, I took off on a sprint down to Davy Fitz in our goals. He knew what was coming before I even had the words out of my mouth. “Where the f*** do you want me to puck it? I’ve tried every f***ing place.” In fairness to Fitzy, we didn’t have a short puckout at the time. We held that Cork team to 0-16 but they had that composure and clinical mindset when it mattered.
They had the bench too. Can you imagine being able to bring on a defender of Wayne Sherlock’s class? And even though one of their main defensive generals had gone off, Cork still had that line of steel across their half-back line that Clare couldn’t break.
That Cork half-back line of Gardiner, Curran and Ó hAilpín was a key weapon in that team. Players of that class, and with that chemistry together as a defensive line, don’t come along that often. But when I compare that half-back line with the Cork half-back line I came up against the next time I faced Cork as a manager, the difference almost summed up why Cork won All-Irelands in the 2000. And why the next decade was the first time Cork went a decade without winning an All-Ireland.
In the Dublin-Cork 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, much of our gameplan was based around trying to exploit the Cork half-back line. We told goalkeeper Gary Maguire beforehand to go after that line on our puckout. Ryan O’Dwyer was cleaning up. If he didn’t win the ball cleanly, Conal Keaney and Danny Sutcliffe were savaging onto the breaks.
The Cork half-back line were struggling to cope but Dwyer’s sending-off was the turning point in that match. In fairness to Cork, they went on afterwards and should have won the drawn All-Ireland. That would have been some achievement by Jimmy Barry-Murphy, his management and the players but, for me anyway, the comparative half-back lines between 2005 and 2013 almost encapsulated why Cork didn’t win the 2013 All-Ireland. And why they haven’t won one since.
It’s not just down to the half-back lines either because when you look at the defenders Cork had back in the 2000s – ‘The Rock’ O’Sullivan, Sherlock, Pat Mulcahy, Brian Murphy, the three amigos outside them – they’ve consistently struggled to find defenders with that same quality. Any county would, but that deficit has really hurt Cork.
Then again, is it hunger either? From what I can gather, these Cork players sound like fantastic fellas. They’d do anything to win an All-Ireland so is it more a lack of confidence than a lack of hunger?
That might sound like me making excuses for them, but when you’ve had the level of disappointment all of these lads have had, from underage right through to senior, maybe that apparent lack of hunger manifests itself in different forms.
They’ve lost All-Ireland minor, U-20 and U-21 finals, but at least they’ve got there. Apart from 2013, Cork’s track record in All-Ireland senior semi-finals was one long horror-story during the last decade, losing five in nine years. But they were getting there. Maybe rediscovering that extra bit of belief will help Cork over the line if they get to the last-four again.
The one thing you always associated with Cork was belief. They always believed they would win, that they would find a way, which they somehow did that afternoon against us in 2005. Yet 13 years on, when Cork were in the same position as Clare – they were actually even in a better position because there was far less time on the clock – Limerick were able to reel in a six-point deficit in the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final without scoring a goal.
Did those memories of the bad days – the 2013 All-Ireland final, the 2014 and 2017 All-Ireland semi-finals – just flood back into the minds of those Cork players?
When I look back at my time in Clare, we had to fight those battles too, where we had experienced nothing but serial disappointment for generations. Cork have only had to live with that reality for over a decade but, maybe that goes back to my point about the ‘Twilight Zone’ – once you’re used to a certain way, once your history always saw things work a certain way, when that world is shattered, is it just so much harder to find a way out of that Twilight Zone?
We all look at Cork differently now. They’re no longer the feared machine they always were. The layers have been gradually stripped back to reveal a new veneer, but I also think that the insecurity fostered by that new reality has seeped into the Cork psyche.
I have some great friends in Cork, who I’d often check in with. They’re brilliant hurling people but you can sense that insecurity and frustration off them, especially towards the players. “We have some good lads but we don’t have enough of ‘em anymore, boy. They’re not there.” That stuff feeds into the narrative that a lot of these young lads have grown up listening to. That narrative has to change for Cork. Maybe it will. They have serious talent within the squad. There are good young players coming. Maybe Cork are on the cusp of something special but, as well as the players having to step up, everyone needs to row in behind the squad too. When you’re down, as we were for so long in Clare, it’s easy for your people to abandon you. But that’s when you need them the most.
There will always be a certain amount of confidence and arrogance in the Cork lads, but it must be difficult for such a successful hurling county to be dealing with a whole new identity. You can see how that identity has been further undermined by the whole fiasco around Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and the spiralling debt hanging around the county’s neck like an albatross.
When you lose that something which is so unique to your brand, and your identity, it’s hard to get it back. But in fairness to Kieran Kingston and his management, they seem to be trying desperately hard to rediscover that identity, and to lead Cork to a new way, and back to where they feel they belong.
Kingston looks like the right man now to try and get Cork back to that place. He was a selector in 2013 when they reached the All-Ireland final. Kingston was coach in 2014 when Cork won a first Munster title in eight years. He managed Cork to the 2017 Munster title. Kingston certainly left the job in a better place for John Meyler when he departed at the end of 2017.
Cork though, are still craving that elusive All-Ireland. And it will take the return of Liam MacCarthy for Cork to get back to that place they so desperately desire to be.
Getting there won’t be easy. It may take time but Cork just need to keep trying to navigate a way out of the darkness, and into the light.