TIT-FOR-TAT? Well, in the 2004 All-Ireland final Cork denied Kilkenny the three-in-a-row; two years on, Kilkenny can gain sweet revenge and deny Cork exactly the same honour. In the long history of the GAA, hurling or football, this is the first time this has happened.
What about the number of personnel though? In their run to this year's final, and presuming they name the same 15 as started the semi-final win over Waterford, Cork will have used a total of just 17 players in starting positions. In 2004 Wayne Sherlock started at corner-back, was injured for the beginning of the 2005 championship season, and Pat Mulcahy stepped in and has kept that jersey.
In both 2004 and 2005, Kieran Murphy of Sars started at corner-forward; he has now been replaced by Neil Ronan, on the wing, with Ben O'Connor gone into the corner. Cork have also used three substitutes in the two finals they've played, John Browne coming on for Brian Murphy in 2004, and Neil Ronan and Kieran Murphy (Erin's Own) for Kieran Murphy (Sars) and Niall McCarthy in 2005, making a total of 19 players used. If they succeed in their quest, no other team in modern times has been as economical in its use of playing personnel.
The last three-in-a-row team was Cork, 1976-78; they used 19 starters, with John Horgan, Dermot McCurtin, Tom Cashman and Tim Crowley coming on in 1977 in place of Pat McDonnell, Pat Barry, Pat Moylan and Brendan Cummins. In the only subsequent change for the 1978 final, Pat Moylan regained his place in midfield, Tim Crowley moving to wing-forward with Mick Malone the only player to lose out. John Horgan and Moylan actually appeared in all three games, ‘Blondie’ John coming on as a sub in ‘76 and Moylan in ‘77. Current manager John Allen also made an appearance, in 1978, while Eamonn O'Donoghue came on in 1976 and 1978, and Tadhg Murphy of Sars the only other to play (1978), making a total of 22 players.
The only line to remain intact for all three wins was the full-forward line of Charlie McCarthy, Ray Cummins and Seanie O'Leary, while Martin Coleman, father of the current Cork sub-keeper, was an ever-present between the posts.
Going further back, the previous three-in-a-row team was also from Cork (1952-54). They used 21 starters and just three subs, one of whom, Tom O'Sullivan, came on in 1954 but started in 1953; that was 23 players overall. For this hat-trick, Dave Creedon was the constant keeper, while the full-back line of Gerry O'Riordan, Jack Lyons and Tony O'Shaughnessy was the only unchanged line.
Immediately prior to that Cork three-in-a-row, Tipperary had done exactly the same in 1949-51. Again the goalkeeper and full-back line was intact for all three, the only line to remain so. Tipp used a total of 20 different starters, but stuck to that total overall, with just one substitution each year, each of whom started in other years. In fact, S. Kenny and P. Kenny both played in all three games, but came on as a sub one year each, P in 1949, S (for P, ironically) in 1951.
Going back before that again, there was the famed Cork four-in-a-row outfit, 1941-44. Technically, there are two three-in-a-rows in there, the first three years and the last three. Let’s take the first three (1941-43): they used 22 starters, five subs, two of whom — keeper J. Buttimer and P. O'Donovan — started in other years, making it a total of 25 players used in all.
From 1942-44, Cork used 20 starters, and four subs, O'Donovan again having been used previously, giving a total of 23.
Overall, in the four years, 24 different players started, with six substitutions and four new names, a total of 28 — almost enough for two complete teams. Not a single line remained intact in either of the three-year runs.
The current Cork team, in contrast, in reaching four All-Ireland finals on the trot, has used just 20 starters (Mickey O'Connell, Setanta Ó hAilpín and Alan Browne started in 2003) making 23 players in all (Seanie McGrath came on as a sub in 2003, with Jerry O'Connor).
Next team back in line is Kilkenny, with the county's only three-in-a-row (1911-13), though there's an asterisk attached to the 1911 final, with the Cats awarded a walkover over Limerick. According to the Kilkenny GAA Bible, a magnificent compilation by Gerry O'Neill, there was absolutely no change between the team in 1911 that beat Tipperary in a ‘substitute’ All-Ireland final, in lieu of the Limerick game, and that which beat Cork in the real final of 1912. After this, complications, with teams reduced from 17-a-side to 15-a-side in 1913. Two additions to this team from the previous year, but impossible, really, to compare from that era.
There was an even earlier three-in-a-row, Cork again, in 1892-4, but this was in the period when counties were still represented in large part by their club champions, so there were large-scale changes.
AS a final comparison, in the modern era, the great Kerry football team of the 70s/80s won four-in-a-row — eight titles in 12 years. The four-in-a-row outfit (1978-81) was practically unchanged throughout: tactically there was just one change, Ger O'Keeffe in for Mick Spillane in 1980 though Mick was back in 1981 and every subsequent year. Other than that, the only changes were injury-enforced — Ger Power out in 1979, Bomber Liston absent in 1980, Pat Spillane injured in 1981 (but came on as a sub). On each occasion they were replaced by Tommy Doyle, who played in a different position every year of the three he played, and who went to play wing-back in the three-in-a-row team later. Generally, however, the best 15 was set in stone over that period, with just 17 players used as starters.
That Kerry team, having been denied the five-in-a-row milestone, came back to win three-in-a-row (1984-86), Mick O’Dwyer again very sparing in the use of starting players. Just 17 he used for the new era, 23 starters in all over the four-in-a-row/ three-in-a-row period, with three more from 1975. Thus, even if they should win this Sunday, Cork have some way to go to match the record of what is certainly the best GAA team of all time. Ever.