It is a signpost to All-Ireland finals yet to be played, not an echo of All-Ireland finals of the past. It’s about the players, not about the managers.
And yet, of course, to a large extent it is about the managers.
At the final whistle the photographers will fall over one another straining for the money shot: John Allen and Jimmy Barry-Murphy, old St Finbarr’s colleagues, shaking hands or embracing.
Yes, it’s Limerick versus Cork. Only superficially is it Allen versus Barry-Murphy. But the superficial narrative is as beguiling as the real one.
There’s a good reason for that. We are not yet familiar enough with these Cork and Limerick teams to be able to view them as independent entities in their own right, planets that revolve in an orbit free of their managers.
So it’s ‘Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s Cork’, which is neat shorthand for ‘yer man and a bunch of young lads whose names we’re not familiar with’.
The early summer of 1999 all over again.
JBM was more than simply the Cork manager then. He was the face of the brand, the front-of-house man, and in a way he always will be. He could be managing the Real Madrid galactico-era team and he’d still be a bigger draw than any of them. Or in the words of one Dave Hannigan, not a man who runs a fluffy bunny farm: “If you grew up in Cork in the ’70s and ’80s and JBM is not your hero, there’s something not right about you.”
Labouring away diligently backstage 14 years ago, far from the bright lights, was John Allen, the team masseur. He was on hand for the All-Ireland media night that season, his presence leaving most of us wondering who was this diffident figure in the sandals and had he wandered in there by mistake.
But hey, it’s true what they say: it’s the quiet ones you gotta watch.
A generation earlier Allen and Barry-Murphy had similarly shared September glory when Cork clinched the three-in-a-row in 1978.
JBM was the man of the moment then too, pouncing at the Railway End late in the game to beat Noel Skehan for what Micheál O Hehir immediately and correctly hailed as “the kind of goal that can win an All-Ireland? And it did. Allen? He was less central, coming on as first sub, wearing the No 19 jersey, replacing Tom Cashman.
Many years later the pair of them would be All Ireland-winning managers. In JBM’s case it was probably inevitable from the moment he struck out on the managerial path. A born winner.
In Allen’s case it was far from inevitable. It was far from inevitable that the quiet, efficient, trustworthy masseur of 1999 would end up a manager in the first place.
In a way that’s his unique selling point. If he sounds like a manager it’s because he grew into the role, not because he was groomed for it. He fell into the job rather than scaled the greasy pole.
Hence his success with Cork in 2005-06. Allen wasn’t a commander in chief like his immediate predecessor Donal O’Grady. Crucially, he didn’t make the mistake of trying to be. Instead of seeking to impose his will on a bunch of remarkably independent thinkers he let them, the permanent crew, continue to steer the ship. Leadership by consensus. Leadership by pretending not to lead.
It would be easy and not inaccurate to speculate that in a different life — and John Allen has had umpteen different lives — he’d have been a UN mediator. But on the day he really had to be his own man as Cork manager, he was.
Remember the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final when Clare had a knife to Cork’s throat midway through the second half? There was no handwringing from Allen, no agonised discussion with his selectors. He acted and he acted quickly.
Off came Brian Corcoran, the reigning All Star full-forward. Off came Ronan Curran, the reigning All Star centre-back. Cork produced a whirlwind closing quarter and won by a point. The two-in-a-row was clinched that day.
Some chap in Limerick made the papers last year by deploring Allen’s appointment on the basis that — paraphrased — he wasn’t the type to break hurleys in the dressing room before a match.
As if breaking hurleys in the dressing room was the secret of success in this day and age (or, indeed, had served Limerick so well since 1973). One trusts he’s recanted his scepticism.
For much the same reason, Ger Loughnane for once got it wildly wrong when declaring that Barry-Murphy lacked the steel for the Cork job.
Because it’s not all about carrying a big stick. Honey catches flies sooner than vinegar.
To every season and to every successful team there is the right manager in the right place. Only Loughnane, with boot and bite and bollock, could have transformed Clare. Donal O’Grady had the force of personality to right the Cork ship after the first strike and quieten the mutineers. Eamonn Cregan possessed the flexibility and good sense to let the Offaly players do things their own way. And nobody but Brian Cody could have guided Kilkenny to multiple All-Irelands. It takes all sorts.
Go for a night out with Jimmy and you’ll drink pints and talk dogs and horses. (I know. We did.) Go for a night out with John and you’ll quite probably drink green tea, chill your karma and talk about everything from yoga to foreign travel to James Taylor and Bob Dylan. Clubmates, All Ireland-winning managers but very different individuals. Again, all sorts.
They’re still not too old to learn. Last year’s league final provided a short sharp shock for Barry-Murphy. So this was Kilkenny in high definition, dead-eyed and remorseless, and this was how high the bar had been raised in his absence. He wasn’t slow about putting his hand up afterwards, admitting he’d fallen down on the job by failing to have Cork properly primed. It is one of the oldest tricks in the managerial handbook and still one of the most effective. Blame yourself, not the players.
He has also done well to ignore the ceaseless Greek chorus from the wings about who he should have on the team.
Tomorrow? It’s the first game of this heaven-sent hurling summer that looks too close to call. Chances are it’ll be nip and tuck all the way, with whichever side catches a wind in the closing quarter kicking on from there.
Limerick are now making a habit of getting themselves into winning positions. And they’ve a decent bench and are prepared to use it.
Maybe them, with the Gaelic Grounds roaring them home in the last 10 minutes. And two humble men embracing at the final whistle.