For decades it was regarded as the classic All-Ireland final pairing. Leeside versus Noreside, red and white versus black and amber. The three-parter of 1931 which brought hurling to the attention of the nation.
The thunder and lightning of 1939 as the world went to war again. The fabled showdown of 1947.
Even if the more recent championship clashes of Cork and Kilkenny have been rather less thrilling, the annals bulge with numerous collisions of the counties where the result might as easily have gone the other way.
Here are four Cork/Kilkenny matches that left the losers wondering What if…
1978: What If… JBM’s shot hadn’t been deflected?
Cork 1-15 Kilkenny 2-8: Cork were going for three in a row. Their opponents had seven players making their All-Ireland debuts for the county. The better and more experienced outfit won, no question. Yet this final was ever afterwards lamented in Kilkenny as one that got away.
Certainly they wereunlucky when it came to the moment that mattered.
The holders led by two points at the three-quarter stage when the ball squirted out of a melee at the Railway End and came to Jimmy Barry Murphy. From about 15 metres he hit a shot that was left-handed, low and harmless looking.
But as the Kilkenny defenders scurried across to cover, the sliotar spun off Dick O’Hara, changed direction and wrongfooted Noel Skehan. Micheál O’Hehir immediately recognised what he’d witnessed. “Jimmy Barry Murphy the scorer of the goal that can win an All Ireland!”
“Ah sure, that’s what happens with a deflection,” Skehan muses now.
“You have it covered and the next thing it’s gone. I couldn’t recover. It made a huge difference.” What also mattered was the ineffectiveness of the Kilkenny forwards, who could only muster 2-3 from play between them, while a newspaper the next day was critical of the challengers’ selectors, particularly their decision to take off Liam O’Brien and to switch Brian Cody from full-forward to the 40’. (Over the next few weeks the late Georgie Leahy, one of the Kilkenny selectors, would receive abusive letters signed by “Lory Meagher” and “Jimmy Langton”.)
Fan Larkin did some philosophising in the dressing room afterwards.
“We let the bloody thing slip away from us. No matter, we’ll be back again next year.”
And they were.
1983: What If…Cork had been more accurate in the second-half?
Kilkenny 2-14 Cork 2-12: This Pat Henderson-coached crew was one of the great Kilkenny combinations, as demonstrated by their National League/All Ireland double in successive seasons. As underdogs in 1982 they’d demolished Cork and early in the second half a year later they led by ten points. It looked all over. It wasn’t quite, not least because Cork had a gale behind them. But the wind has still never won a match for anyone.
The statistics spoke volumes. The losers registered nine wides from placed balls. They hit eight wides to their opponents’ one in the second half. With Kilkenny failing to score in the last 18 minutes Cork came back into the argument via goals from Tomás Mulcahy and Seanie O’Leary. Then, at the death, Kevin Hennessy soloed through and unleashed a rocket that Noel Skehan could only look at.
Looking down the field from the edge of the far square the Cork full-back watched the shot all the way. It was low, it was hard, it was heading for Skehan’s left-hand upright from Donal O’Grady’s angle – and it was always going wide, albeit narrowly. That was that. “We owned the game for the last ten minutes and had enough chances to knock over points,” O’Grady recalls.
“Kilkenny were gone.” Cork had one other regret . The half-back line and Frank Cummins apart, one of the heroes of the hour for the winners was Billy Fitzpatrick, who in his sixth All Ireland final at long last made the difference in a way his extravagant talent demanded, landing five points from play and another five from frees. Thing is, one of the frees was clearly wide. “At least a metre – or a yard at the time – wide,” says O’Grady.
1999: What If…Charlie Carter’s shot had been lower?
Cork 0-13 Kilkenny 0-12: Right up there with, and in so many ways comparable to, 1966 in the pantheon of great Cork triumphs. Right up there with, and in so many ways comparable to 1966 in the dungeon of great Kilkennydisasters. The hot favourites on both occasions? The men in stripes. The underdogs, young and callow, on both occasions? The blood and bandage.
En route to the last final of the millennium Brian Cody’s team had been banging in the goals: five against Offaly, two against Clare. Cork had managed a total of one goal against both counties. But the rain teemed down on September 12th and made it a defender’s game, which suited JBM’s boy band more than it suited the other crowd. Not that it suited either set of forwards; the match had more wides (17 apiece) than scores and it took Kilkenny 20 minutes to open their account Nonetheless they were leading by 0-9 to 0-6 after 53 minutes when Henry Shefflin, in his first final, worked the ball back from the white line at the Davin End to Charlie Carter. Ah yes, Carter and that chance… “A wet day. I got the ball from Henry, turned and put it on target. It went over the bar.
“I came out shaking my head. You can see on the video what I said to myself. I should have had a goal.” Still: four points up in a monsoon with three-quarters of the journey travelled. In the circumstances Carter hadn’t missed a goal, he’d scored a point. Kilkenny’s inability to close out proceedings was their real failure.
2003: What If…Cork had been more accurate in the first half?
Kilkenny 1-14 Cork 1-11: As in 1983 Kilkenny were going for a second successive league/championship double; this time Donal O’Grady was involved as Cork manager, having been appointed the previous December following the first player strike, but once again the men in red were undone by their inaccuracy. Cork had seven scorers to Kilkenny’s four, which says something; DJ Carey and Eddie Brennan failed to raise a flag between them. But of the holders’ quartet of scorers Martin Comerford hit 1-4 and Tommy Walsh 0-3, which also says something.
Over and above everything else was the challengers’ wides tally (11) in the first half, at the end of which they trailed by 0-9 to 0-3.
Twenty minutes into the second half Cork turned things around and led 1-9 to0-11. O’Grady can still see a shot by Niall McCarthy to put Cork two ahead that “went very high, hit the top of the Kilkenny post, dropped down and was cleared”.
Cody’s charges made good their escape and five minutes from time Comerford’s goal sealed matters.