Watching them inside the stewards’ cordon last Sunday, both separated from and yet at one with the surrounding mass of red starting up The Banks, our own thoughts in their fancy took flight and wondered: was this the greatest Munster championship Cork has ever won?
And after scouring through the record books the last day or two, the conclusion is: yes. All things considered, this one tops the lot.
There have been possibly sweeter Munster finals, like the supposed donkeys winning the derby against Babs’ thoroughbreds in 1990 – but hardly a sweeter or more unlikely Munster title.
In 1990, Cork’s Munster quarter-final opponents were Kerry. This year their quarter-final opponents were a Tipperary side even more fancied and explosive than Babs’, having also won the previous year’s All Ireland.
In 1990, Cork’s Munster semi-final opponents were a Waterford team that had besmirched the one big occasion they had been part of, the previous year’s Munster final.
This year Cork’s Munster semi-final opponents were a Waterford team that had contested three All Ireland semi-finals, two Munster finals and two league finals over the previous 25 months.
The definitive year of the mushrooms will always be 1966, with not even the team itself expecting to claim silverware at the outset of the summer.
According to Justin McCarthy’s autobiography, Hooked, they were having some grub after a challenge game in Nowlan Park when Jim ‘Tough’ Barry ran into the room “like a schoolboy just after hearing the war was over”.
Tipperary, who had won four of the previous five All-Irelands, had been blitzed for 3-5 by Éamonn Cregan and dumped out of the championship.
Some players had to ring home to make sure Barry wasn’t having them on. That’s how invincible they like everyone else thought that Tipperary side were.
It is to the eternal credit of that Cork team that they would capitalise on Tipp’s absence and go on to beat the rest of Munster and then Kilkenny – it remains the last All-Ireland in which Cork beat three of the other traditional hurling counties in the Munster championship en route to lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup in September. But still, it has to be noted – they didn’t encounter Tipp.
That’s why this year has the edge over any of the county’s previous 51 Munster title triumphs – for the quantity and quality of opponent overcome.
Prior to this year, 15 of Cork’s last 17 Munster titles were won without having to play a Munster quarter-final, at least against someone other than Kerry (1982 and 2014 being the exceptions).
In a good few of those campaigns, two tests was plenty enough. In both 1984 and 1985, Limerick were coming off winning the league while it took four goals both years to see off Tipp. In 1992, Tipp were the reigning All-Ireland champs while Limerick were once again reigning league champs.
Probably the most impressive scalp collection of the lot prior to this year was 1999.
As Pat Ryan would point out to this column that September during the Burlington Hotel celebrations, to win that All-Ireland Cork had to beat all four of the previous year’s All Ireland semi-finalists, starting with Waterford in the Munster semi-final and then taking down a Clare team that had won three Munsters and two All-Irelands over the previous four years.
In 2003, Cork would beat the two of them again, and in some style – but it was just the two of them they had to beat.
This year, Cork had to do it the hardest possible way. They had to peak on not just two but three occasions.
There was no easy touch, as there would have been for decades when Clare and Waterford were, as Anthony Daly so rightly phrased it, the whipping boys of Munster. They didn’t even get to play Limerick, a respectable outfit but now by a distance the fifth team in the province.
Instead they had to beat a Tipp team that had won the previous year’s All-Ireland and the past two Munster titles, a Waterford side that has contested the past two All-Ireland semi-finals and a Clare team that won last year’s league and knows from 2013 what it’s like to have been at the summit.
In grasping the present and creating a suddenly dazzlingly-bright future, it’s striking how Kingston’s team are also emboldened by and honouring the county’s past.
In Mark Coleman they have a young wing back as audacious and as assured on the big stage as Tom Kenny and John Gardiner in 2003; in Colm Spillane a Castlelyons man following in the tradition of his clubmate Timmy McCarthy in ’99; in the likes of Darragh Fitzgibbon, Luke Meade and Shane Kingston, players in the lineage and spirit of what Justin, Gerald and Charlie along with Seánie Barry brought in ’66.
Time will tell whether greatness and All-Irelands will be theirs. But by winning Munster as they have, a piece of history already is.