Last Tuesday night, Cork hurling seemed to have turned a corner. Evan Sheehan’s injury-time goal against Tipperary looked to have won the Munster U20 championship, only for Jake Morris to rescue the Premier County with a terrific goal at the other end moments later.
If Cork had held out, it might have heralded a brave new dawn for a county suffering a crisis of confidence in the wake of repeated defeats at the sharp end of (various) championships. Instead, it reinforced the perception of Cork as a county which loses more close games than it wins, as it continues to endure one of the longest All-Ireland famines in its history.
But such crises are not unknown to other counties either. Going back to the 60s, for instance, the Kilkenny hurlers were forced to grapple with the perception Tipperary were too strong for them, with widespread insinuation that the Cats might, in fact, be nervous of the blue and gold.
Ironically, Tipperary suffered its own existential problems in the ’70s, exiting the Munster championship year after year in the first round, with Cork dominating them to the extent that a Tipperary captain later admitted he and his team-mates were in awe of the Rebels.
Are there lessons for Cork in how their traditional rivals eventually overcame their problems?
Take Kilkenny first. They couldn’t beat Tipperary in championship hurling for decades — literally, between 1922 and 1966. Eddie Keher’s intercounty career with Kilkenny began when the Cats were under the Tipperary thumb, but ended with Kilkenny well on top.
How did that happen? In last year’s documentary series The Game , Keher addressed Kilkenny’s issues of the time regarding the great Tipperary side of the ’50s and ’60s: “They had a reputation of being tough and strong and they also had a reputation that Kilkenny couldn’t beat them because Kilkenny played sort of fancy hurling, and they weren’t the match for this robust Tipperary team.”
The reputation was hard to shake. In Enda McEvoy’s The Godfather of Modern Hurling, one of Keher’s team-mates, Tom Murphy, felt the need to point out that he wasn’t, in fact, nervous about entering the Hell’s Kitchen that was the Tipperary full-back line (“We had no fear of any of those lads. I’d have been more afraid playing Freshford when Pa (Dillon) was there.”).
For all that, Kilkenny knew they had to change if they were to overcome jibes such as ‘Kilkenny for the hurlers, Tipperary for the men’. Keher pointed out in The Game that Kilkenny coach Fr Tommy Maher changed the Kilkenny approach to counter the blue and gold.
“The same old thing was being thrown up — ‘not able to beat Tipp in an All-Ireland’, ‘when the chips are down Hell’s Kitchen will rough you out of it’,” recalled Keher.
“Fr Maher got working on the team — knew that we weren’t going to beat them on skill alone, that we had to be — we had to develop strong, tough hurlers as well, which he did.
And so, while this was being developed, Tipperary were very strong, a brilliant team in the ’60s, and we were coming up against them, trying to match them physically as well as skill-wise.”
Kilkenny broke through with the 1967 All-Ireland final win, finally overcoming Tipperary. They were prepared to change style and stand up physically, though it should also be noted that in the decider that year Tipperary had eight players over the age of 30, while
Enda McEvoy has pointed out that the Kilkenny forwards were aged 23, 23, 26, 24, 23 and 22. Still, the Cats had changed their approach, and they never looked back.
Tipperary, meanwhile, suffered a famine starting in 1971 that will be familiar to clubs and counties everywhere: when their greatest team grew old together they all had to be replaced together.
Tipperary took a decade and a half to regain their eminence, years in which they were intimidated by one of their Munster neighbours.
Cork dominated the ’70s to such an extent that Jimmy Barry-Murphy would go his entire career without losing a championship game to Tipp — an unthinkable prospect for the previous generations of players in the province.
Richard Stakelum, Tipperary captain when they finally ended that famine, told The Game: “When Cork would come to Thurles they would bring huge, huge colour. And we were really, really aware of that. And, to be quite frank, we were in awe of them.
“And they were still winning All-Irelands when we were winning nothing. And they’d beat Tipp in the Munster final in ’84. Beat Tipp in the Munster final in ’85. Were we ever going to beat them?”
Stakelum credited the appointment of Babs Keating with reinvigorating Tipperary. The first thing he did was boost the players’ confidence with resources: “We were way ahead, it gave us that extra confidence.
“I remember going into Thurles the day of the Munster final in 1987 and we arrived in a bus with our blazers and our gear bags and our hurleys and our shirts and ties and the Cork team went in their jeans and t-shirts.”
It wasn’t all a matter of snazzy clothing. Tipperary collected All-Ireland U21 titles in 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1985, and had almost tasted senior provincial success in 1984 and 1985. They were coming.
Still, Keating became a lightning rod and leader out of the wilderness, and a reinvigorated Tipperary would win All-Irelands in 1989 and 1991.
Mindsets and messiahs. Two options for Cork.