KIERAN SHANNON: The hurling legend lives on

We’ll be there in Croker tomorrow, like Cork, back for the first time in a while, but you can hardly say he’s new to the place.

Leave aside the four All-Irelands he won across the grades in both codes there: the anniversaries this month alone indicate just how special a place it was for him and how special a talent he was. It’s 25 years ago this week he played an All-Ireland MHC final aged only 15; 21 years since he was Cork’s best player in the senior final against Kilkenny which, while not enough to win an All-Ireland, was enough for him to become the youngest Hurler of the Year ever; 20 years since he played a senior football final there against Derry.

He’s also mindful that it’s 10 years almost to the day that he was there when Cork played Kilkenny in another September showdown. He didn’t play that time, just as he hadn’t for club or county in over two years, an arrangement he was comfortable with, sitting above in the upper Hogan. But when he popped into see the team that evening in the Citywest and saw their hurt and resolve to go one better the following year, something stirred in him. Within three days he’d suggest to his wife Elaine about coming out of retirement and within three years he’d played in another three All-Ireland finals, winning two.

He left it at that then in 2006, just as Cork would when it came to contesting All-Irelands. This year though he’s started back helping out down in the club. You couldn’t call him a selector with the Erin’s Own U12 side because that would be too formal and too big a commitment with all the travel that goes with his work, but when he can he gives Noel and Liz Moloney a hand out with the two dozen kids that flock to the field in Glounthaune.

You might think he’s a God amongst them down there but he’s not. None of them would have seen him play. Maybe some of the more observant of them will have recognised his similarity to the lean goateed warrior that adorns numerous photos on the clubhouse walls, but even a lot of the older kids wouldn’t have a clue who he is.

“And I like that,” says Corcoran. “As time goes on you get recognised less and less and I actually like that.”

In the current Cork panel though they remember Brian Corcoran: for some as a former colleague, for nearly all as a childhood hero. Recently for the Cork GAA website they were all asked to name the best player they’d ever seen and a third of them plumped for Corcoran; only Tommy Walsh came close in the poll. Back in 1999 when Jimmy Barry-Murphy was on the verge of bringing a group of youngsters to an All-Ireland title, he would remark: “I have been watching hurling for the past 35 years or so and I can say, without hesitation, I have never seen better than Brian Corcoran.”

This past month on the eve of possibly guiding another batch of kids to the holy grail, Barry-Murphy’s opinion hadn’t changed. In half a century of following hurling, Corcoran remains the best those blue eyes have seen.

The respect is enduringly mutual.

“To be honest I was surprised to see Jimmy go back in, not because of his ability, but because of all the workload and potential grief that goes with it. But Jimmy is no fool either and was wise enough to bring a strong team with him. Making Ger Cunningham the coach was a masterstroke.

“Some managers can be dictatorial and try to rule by fear. They have zero interaction with you unless they’re giving out to you. With Jimmy and Cunningham there’s constant communication and encouragement. Not necessarily by going for coffee with you but just calling on the phone or having a word at training. Jimmy would have no problem asking how work or college or things at home are going and he’s picked selectors with the same mindset. The likes of Kieran Kingston and Johnny Crowley and Seanie (McGrath), I won’t say they’re laid back but they’re down to earth and can relate to the players and that makes the players feel at ease. That team is playing without fear and that stems from the personality of Jimmy and his selectors.”

They’re also a team playing without some big personalities and close friends of Corcoran’s. Barry-Murphy’s cull over the winter surprised Corcoran but having played under him before, he could instantly see the logic.

“I felt for Donal Óg (Cusack) but at the same time (Anthony) Nash took his opportunity last year and won his All Star. Donal Óg himself recognised he was no longer the guaranteed number one, but I think what irked him was that he wasn’t even considered among the top three in the county, that he went from number one to number four over the space of a year.

“But when you look at from Jimmy’s perspective, he decided to go with a youth approach like he did in ’99. There were hard luck stories in ’99 as well. Ger Cunningham was still playing well in ’98 but then Donal Óg was given his chance. Everything goes full circle, I suppose. I wouldn’t say I agreed or disagreed with Jimmy’s decision. Everymanager has to make his own call and it was certainly a brave call.

“Realistically he’s probably a year ahead of where he thought the team would be; the backdoor has helped that way whereas we didn’t have that back in ’98, say when we were also rebuilding. I’d say Jimmy was probably thinking more along the lines of building a team for 2014 and 2015 and calculated that Seán Óg (Ó hAilpín) and Donal Óg would be 38 then. I obviously felt for the two lads but for me (John) Gardiner was a tougher call. At 30, 31, you would have thought he had plenty of hurling still left in him. ”

Michael Collins dashes to the scene only to find his old comrade in arms but now civil war adversary Harry Boland is dead, his body hauled out of the Liffey. A mournful Collins holds up the corpse, and softly says: What happened? Soldier across from him: He tried to run across the river, sir. I plugged him.

Collins: I didn’t ask you! I asked him!

Soldier: But he’s dead, sir!

Collins (now grabbing the soldier): And you killed him, you little git! You were meant to protect him!

Soldier: But he was one of them, sir!

Collins: No, son, you don’t understand. He was one of us.

- Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, 1996

When Corcoran thinks of those three departed colleagues – Cusack, Ó hAilpín, Gardiner – or any of the rest of the team he won All-Irelands with in his glorious comeback, he only recalls the hurling and the friendships. For him there was no rancour or recriminations; in his time playing there were no strikes. He hopes too that there’ll be a time when everyone will see them for the hurlers they were, just as he hopes those players too will come to see the humanity of those that opposed them in those painful, seemingly interminable winters.

Take Gerald McCarthy. During the last of those strikes Corcoran spoke at a public demonstration attended by over 10,000. Corcoran’s presence was a gesture of solidarity with the striking players but while he expressed his wonderment that the board both appointed McCarthy in the autumn of 2006 when he was reluctant to take the job and then reappointed him two years later when he and the players hadn’t clicked, Corcoran stopped short of saying McCarthy should step down.

“I told Donal Óg when I agreed to speak that day he mightn’t like everything I’d say or wouldn’t say. Because for me it wasn’t a case of the players being 100% right and the board being 100% wrong. At no stage did I say Gerald should go. I played under Gerald when I first came into the Cork panel in ’91 so I had a lot of respect for Gerald. That must have been a very tough time for him as well, with those personal threats and everything. No one should have had to go through that.”

A month or so after McCarthy reluctantly did step down, Corcoran ran into him on the first tee down in East Cork. Soon afterwards Corcoran received a text, saying the word was that Gerald and himself had had a big bust-up on the golf course. It was never like that. They talked away freely, like they always did. More than once since Corcoran has popped into McCarthy’s shop whenever he wants some trophies inscribed. Why not? Ultimately, as Collins might say, McCarthy was one of “us”.

It would be best for everyone too, reckons Corcoran, if the county board remembered the same about those players. “I would hope the board will have moved on as well. I think ultimately both groups that time had the betterment of Cork hurling and Cork GAA at heart. People might not have seen that at the time and felt there were selfish motivations at play but to me those players were certainly trying to drive for more success.

“Constructive conflict is necessary in any successful organisation. You have to keep pushing and challenging each other, striving to improve, otherwise people sit back on their laurels and you won’t be successful because others will have passed you out. Looking back those times were very unpleasant, there was a lot of hurt done to people, but now people need to leave old grudges behind.

“I think that as the years go on people will remember that Cork team as the special players they were rather than for the strikes and their issues with the county board. They reached four All-Ireland finals in-a-row. I know Kilkenny won four All-Irelands in-a-row and more again but it still doesn’t happen very often, what that Cork team achieved. And some of the players from that era would have a lot to offer going forward, in relation to getting involved with Cork teams, whether that’s at underage or senior level.

“There’s a fear that one or two individuals in particular might not be accepted by their own county and be forced to go another county. That would be a shame. You’d hope that Cork would allow them work with Cork teams for the good of Cork.”

After all, as Collins might have put it, the likes of Cusack remain one of “us”.

Corcoran himself won’t be helping out any Cork teams, not in the foreseeable future anyway. He has too much on, he hasn’t really the time, and truth be told, he doesn’t really have the urge either. A lot of former players struggle with being former players. Not Corcoran. He was content with his life when he wasn’t playing back in 2002 and 2003 and it’s been the same since he retired for good nearly seven years ago now.

“I almost felt I was getting my life back again. I saw Gardiner saying during the week that he gave his life to it for 10 years and that’s exactly what you do. Everything else goes to the side.

“Myself and Elaine used to like hillwalking but then I couldn’t even do that when I went back playing because you had to save your energy and keep the legs fresh for the next game or next training session. But, to be honest, it was much tougher on Elaine. When I went out the door, I was away hurling or training with Cork; she was the one who had to mind the three kids. It’s not just you that gives a massive commitment to the game; it’s your wife or partner as well. When I retired I found we had this freedom.”

During his playing career Corcoran only had one summer holiday. Since he retired he and the family are able to go away every summer for two or three weeks, often to go camping somewhere on the continent. He loves being able to do that, having that time with them, especially since he’s still a good bit away with work; only last week the job with Janssen took him to Puerto Rico, though Corcoran smiles, “it’s not as exciting as it sounds; we only saw the plant, not the beach”.

Kate is 12 now, Edel 10, and Ewan’s eight. That means runs to music school, swimming, the scouts, and in Ewan’s case, hurling and soccer too. He still makes a point though to find some Brian time. This year he revived an old passion from his teenage years, taekwondo. It meant learning all the old moves all over again but in June he got his black belt. He’s started back playing golf, down in Cobh, after packing it up for a few years there after the closure of Harbour Point on almost his doorstep. That huge competitive streak he showed so often through the years in Thurles, Killarney and Croke Park still has an outlet.

He still follows the hurling, of course. Last month he took Ewan to watch the club play the Glen in the county championship. Tomorrow though will be his first time in Croker since the football final in 2010 and his first time seeing Cork in the flesh this year.

Some people think he knows everything that’s going on. “I was passing a guy down North Main Street the day before the Kilkenny (All-Ireland quarter-final) game and he stopped me. ‘I’ve €20 in my pocket, I’m going to the bookies. Who should I put it on?!”

Corcoran laughs, just as he laughed then at the idea of choosing between his own county and the greatest team ever in this mad summer of hurling that has stumped even the zealots that follow the form.

These last few days he’s had more people come up to him, asking how does he think this final will go, what did he make of what happened to Seán and Donal Óg. But in general as the years go on more and more, he finds such encounters are less and less, which suits him just fine.

“I’m the kind of person who tends to look forward rather than look back, or, to be more exact, I’m more engaged in the present than anything else. Obviously playing for Cork was great, I’m proud and honoured to have won All-Irelands and competed like I did for the county, but time moves on. The new generation comes along and it’s good to see them have their time now.”

That’s true, but as that poll for that website showed, watching him play in Croker helped inspire them to play there too. In a way, he plays on.

* Visit our special All-Ireland section for more news and analysis on this year's All-Ireland final

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