ENDA MCEVOY: New dawn for an old rivalry

I was talking to a Kilkenny hurler of the 1960s and 70s lately (And before you ask, no, it wasn’t Eddie Keher).

Part of the conversation touched on the various rivalries he’d been a small part of during his time.

Kilkenny and Tipperary: famously bad during the 60s, although in later years, when the players grew up and realised the world was a bigger place than they’d imagined, they managed to kiss and make up and look back on all the nastiness with a laugh and agree that yes, hadn’t they been fierce childish and immature altogether?

Kilkenny and Limerick: extremely intense around 1973-74. No quarter given or asked.

Kilkenny and Wexford: fine, although how Wexford kept coming back year after year from a string of Leinster final defeats in the early 1970s, their spirit unbroken, was a mystery our man never quite succeeded in solving.

Kilkenny and Cork: ah, that was the nicest and most satisfying of them, he said. Matches for the purist. You hurl your game, I’ll hurl mine. The best of friends, the best of enemies.

“Not like the relationship between the current Kilkenny and Cork players,” he added.

He summed it up pretty neatly in that last sentence. Not the best of enemies, certainly not the best of friends. Two groups of players who haven’t got on well for quite a few years and who haven’t gone out of their way to hide it either.

It hasn’t been a hold-the-back-page kind of rivalry. Far from the classic stereotype of yore, the four Cork/Kilkenny All-Ireland finals between 1999 and 2006 were grim, unlovely affairs. Compare and contrast with the Cork/Waterford battle for supremacy in the mid-noughties, which came with crates of fireworks as mandatory accessories, and the Kilkenny/Tipperary equivalent of the last few years, which has been more intense and elemental.

And, as the older hands from each county walk off the stage, the relationship is losing some of its heat.

But heat there was, simmering away for years. Especially in the league games, notably a couple of encounters at Páirc Uí Chaoimh that boiled over with flashpoint moments. Broken hurleys. Yellow cards. And John Gardiner and Tommy Walsh rarely too far removed from the centre of the next squabble.

If some of it was unobjectionable, and more of it was unnecessary and petty, those were the steps of the dance. Why wring one’s hands? Anyway, many a good dish needs seasoning. And every self-respecting rivalry needs a Dónal Óg Cusack to help keep the pot stirred.

Where the nation at large were concerned, his autobiography had a unique selling point. Where numerous members of the hurling nation at large were concerned, his autobiography had an entirely different unique selling point: specifically, his opinion of Kilkenny.

The Stepford Wives, remember? Mindless, faceless robots. He wasn’t gone on them and they, he had the good grace to accept, probably wouldn’t be his biggest fans either.

Quite. We can safely assume that the Kilkenny players of a few years back would have regarded some of their Cork contemporaries as mouthy, self-obsessed and too fond of their own publicity.

It was biting, bracingly honest stuff on Cusack’s part, unfenced by euphemism or platitude. It was from a man who is not merely the most courageous and interesting GAA person of his generation but one of the most courageous and interesting Irish people of his generation. And, a lame allegation of racism on the part of someone in the Nowlan Park attendance aside — dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean leí, — it was the kind of material that should find its way into every self-respecting GAA autobiography yet all too rarely does.

Incidentally, that was a fine save by Cusack from Simon Lambert at Croke Park a few weeks ago. Even if the backswing was abbreviated and the shot had to be directed across goal, he read the Dublin forward’s intentions nonetheless and made it more difficult by staying on his feet instead of guessing and going down early.

It came as one more reminder of what a golden era for goalkeepers we’ve lived through. Cummins, Fitzhenry, Davy Fitz, Cusack. And no, Cusack wasn’t the best of them. But none of the others made more of himself than the Cloyne man did.

The Nowlan Park afternoon he mentioned in the book was the day Cork were beaten by 27 points. Cody’s Kilkenny never make the mistake of confusing business with pleasure, and the mask didn’t slip on this occasion either. They didn’t take the piss. They didn’t get smart and start throw the ball around among themselves. Instead the unsmiling roundheads just went on piling up the scores. But be sure they enjoyed every moment of it.

Faster, pussycat, kill kill.

At the final whistle the scoreboard read 4-26 to 0-11.

Don’t believe the Cork survivors won’t have that in the back of their minds tomorrow.

And don’t for a moment listen to their manager if he mentions the words “my record against Kilkenny” afterwards. JBM’s record against Kilkenny is actually considerably better than he likes to pretend (I did point this out to him once and, to be fair, he grinned). The winning goal in 1978. Glory in the rain in 1999. Two of Cork’s greatest ever days and Jimmy, one way or another, was the man at the centre.

Someone who’s barely entitled to remember 1999 is Conor Lehane, the sensation of the league to date and Cork’s first new sensation in far too long. Unusually for a youngster who can’t be described as big and strapping, Lehane is very good under his own puckout. But how will he fare in high summer with, say, Michael Fennelly blocking the light in front of him and JJ Delaney behind? Tomorrow may give us an idea.

One final point. If Cork lift the silverware next September they won’t be slow about informing the world that the inter-county scene of the last few years would have been very, very different had JBM been the man at the helm. Think Kilkenny want that to happen? They don’t like each other. It’s a more interesting rivalry for it.


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