Valentine’s Night in Cork, the Paris of, ahem, Cork, and the eyes of two old flames will once more meet and lock across a crowded room. Or by the side of a crowded pitch at any rate, if you insist on being pedantic.
Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Brian Cody. Forty-four years now and they’re still truckin’. All-Ireland-winning players. All-Ireland-winning managers. Living legends.
If it’s not a romance, it’s certainly a bromance, a relationship that dates right back to the 1971 All-Ireland minor final. Barry-Murphy was full-forward for Cork, Cody centre-back for Kilkenny. Cork won. The pair could have been ships that passed in the night, as minors normally are. It turned out they were anything but.
They’ve been running into each other on a regular-occasional basis ever since. Another minor showdown the following year, this one won by Kilkenny. An All-Ireland under-21 decider in Dungarvan in 1975. Then three senior finals in the space of six seasons, the second of them with both men captaining their counties.
By right, the story should have finished with their playing days, except both were to have an afterlife on the other side of the whitewash, and it’s impossible to think of the 1999 All-Ireland final without thinking of the pair of them.
It may have been Cork’s sweetest ever victory, not just for how — a late run to short-head Kilkenny in a photo finish, a kind of reverse-negative revenge for defeat in the famous finals of 1939 and ’47 — but also for whom: the manager and all he was and all he represented.
As for Kilkenny, in the there and then it was the most painful of defeats but these days it no longer stings with the lash it once did. Part two of the Cody story was only starting. That’s still running too.
Here’s a statistical curio, though. The pair have clashed twice in the championship as managers and the score is 2-0; 2-0 in favour not of the man with the 10 All-Irelands but the man with the one All Ireland. JBM 2 Cody 0.
One suspects Cody can live with that. One also suspects, those 10 All-Irelands notwithstanding, he’s not wild about it either. But this is one record he’s unlikely to get a shot at rewriting, and not because he won’t be around for another few years.
Still, he’ll cope. He always does. He’ll cope tonight as well, even with the almost surreal list of absentees he has to deal with. The retirees, the Ballyhale crew and five of the forwards from the replay last September.
This isn’t to say that Kilkenny will win, a scenario that’s improbable in the extreme, but what isn’t in doubt is that Cody will send out an XV, irrespective of its holes and gaps and weaknesses, that will die fighting. Like every Kilkenny XV he’s sent out, the iteration of the harsh afternoon lesson of the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final apart.
That the MacCarthy Cup holders will not be bringing their usual chainsaw to Leeside, or to any other venue in the short term, is neither here nor there.
The only Kilkenny man with strength on his bench these days is WP Mullins. Inasmuch as Cody does interim seasons, 2015 is a year for rebuilding. The season after next, if he sticks around — and what else, pray tell, would the man be doing? — he’ll have a rake of last year’s All-Ireland-winning minors contending for places on the panel, putting pressure on the incumbents, freshening things up.
As it is, and allowing that the celebrations have ended and the medals been put away and the clock reset, the visitors will take the field at Páirc Uí Rinn as the winners of every competition they entered last year, still emitting the faint golden radiation of the county’s hardest earned and most satisfying triumph under Cody.
Cork will take the field still under the shadow of events at Croke Park last August.
The outcome of the 2013 All- Ireland final, disappointing as it was, was explicable. Cork gave it their best shot twice and came up a little short against a superior team. It happens.
The 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, on the other hand, was an absolute gut-rummager.
So painful because so abject, so unexpected, so inexplicable. Everything was in place for victory against Tipperary. Cork were Munster champions, which they hadn’t been the previous year. They’d seen off Clare comfortably and Limerick with a little in hand.
They were a better, wiser proposition than the version that had gone so close the previous September. They had Jimmy. All the planets were aligned.
And then they went and hit 1-11. At Croke Park. In August. Against Tipp. The ultimate systems failure. Like one of the foremost actors of the age forgetting his lines on opening night on Broadway.
It was the most dispiriting Cork defeat since when? Easy. The 1996 Munster quarter-final against Limerick.
As that unpleasant afternoon was followed within three years by glory in the rain against Kilkenny, common sense enjoins us not to be tolling the bell for the Rebels any time soon. One difference exists between 1996 and 2015, however: Cork were reigning All-Ireland minor champions then and a wave of inordinately gifted youth was about to wash up on the shore.
Five or six years ago your correspondent declared in the late and lamented Sunday Tribune that it was more important for Cork to win a minor or under-21 All Ireland title that season than it was for them to win the senior All-Ireland. The assertion is still valid. Come to that, the assertion is even more valid today than it was then.
While they weren’t totally wrong, the people who claimed that the sight of Cork reaching the 2013 All-Ireland final and carrying off last year’s provincial crown demonstrated that a county didn’t require success at underage level for success at senior level were further from the mark than nearer to it.
As a rule of thumb, one needs a degree of success at underage level for sustained success at senior level. It’s a subtle difference but not a small difference.
Therein simmers the contrast with tonight’s opponents. Whoever is Cork manager in 2017, and it’ll hardly be JBM, will not have a rake of last year’s All-Ireland-winning minors contending for places on the panel, putting pressure on the incumbents and freshening things up.
Inasmuch as anyone has to win the opening game of the league, the hosts have to win here in view of their opponents’ state of dishevelment. They’ll probably do so by a few points. It may turn out to mean something in the long run; more likely it will do nothing of the sort.
Two houses alike in dignity. If — if — one of the houses is to be markedly more successful than the other over the course of, say, the next 10 years, which will it be? The evidence leaves little room for argument.