Cork go from the Sultans of Ping to the Sultans of Pong

Once Upon a Time it used to be simple. Winters were cold, summers were warm and Cork won All-Irelands. It was one of life’s inevitabilities.
Cork go from the Sultans of Ping to the Sultans of Pong

They wore red, like Manchester United and Liverpool, and in a sense they were the GAA’s answer to Manchester United and Liverpool. Glamorous, sexy, successful. Hollywoodesque.

Not only did they win a couple of All-Irelands per decade, they won them with style and swagger. Above all, they won them with great goals from great forwards, instantly recognisable individuals of all shapes and sizes.

Big lads like Ray Cummins, small lads like Charlie McCarthy, skinny lads like Kevin Hennessy, roundy lads like Seanie O’Leary and desperadoes like Jimmy Barry-Murphy and John Fitzgibbon. Chaps who, for most of the match, seemed to be leaning on their hurleys, doing nothing, and then had the sliotar in the net in half a rapid eye movement.

And you shall know them by the trail of the crestfallen goalies. Ask Noel Skehan about 1978. Ask John Sheedy about 1984. Ask John Commins about 1990. Thing was, they could defend too.

Think of the team of the noughties. They may have lacked an all-singing, all- dancing forward line but they didn’t need one. Not with that defence of theirs.

Look at the totals they conceded on the days that mattered most. Twelve points against Kilkenny, admittedly on a hellish afternoon for forwards, in 1999; 1-14 in defeat against the same county in 2003; 0-9 in victory against them 12 months later; 1-16 versus Galway in 2005; 1-16 against a substantially superior Kilkenny in 2006.

They defended with vigour. More so, they defended with rigour. They chased. They hooked. They harried. They blocked. They got the hurley in and kept it in. They never went to sleep on the job and they were never outworked.

Ever notice anything Brian Murphy did, as Aidan Fogarty once asked? It’s doubtful.

Now for Fogarty’s follow-up question cum punchline: ever notice anything Murphy’s direct opponent did? Exactly. The definition of a good referee is the definition of an effective corner-back.

There weren’t too many effective corner-backs, or effective defenders of any sort, on view in Croke Park this night week. Cork couldn’t possibly have trailed Dublin — Dublin! (and no apologies for the exclamation mark; we’re not talking Kilkenny 2008-09 here) — by 18 points with five minutes left.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming. A musically literate Glen Rovers man took to Twitter on the opening weekend of the league to point out that Cork had leaked 1-27 to Galway on the same afternoon Waterford and Kilkenny between them had managed 0-24, admittedly on a pudding of a Walsh Park pitch. Only seven months had passed since Galway took Cork for 2-28 in the All Ireland quarter-final. Where was the backlash? Where was the hurt pride, the righteous anger?

Donal O’Grady anatomised the county’s defensive woes on these pages the other day with the acuity of a man who reduced Christy Heffernan — 2-3 in the 1982 All Ireland final — to mere mortality a year later. Cork’s forwards don’t defend from the front, he said, and their backs don’t defend properly at all.

They’re too easy to play against. They’re too easy to play through. They’ve been that way for three years now.

If Pat Donnellan steaming through the centre of a parting Red Sea in the opening minutes of the 2013 All Ireland replay for Shane O’Donnell’s first goal was bad enough, then Jonathan Glynn — similarly unhindered — trundling in from the left in the opening minutes at Semple Stadium last July was beyond unforgivable. Diarmuid O’Sullivan must have had a stroke.

Just imagine Glynn trying to pull that stunt against Waterford. He’d have had a wing-back, a centre-back, both midfielders and probably a wing-forward in hot pursuit the moment he left the traps, with Tadhg De Burca, Barry Coughlan and one of the Fiveses in front of him. After all of which he’d still have to beat Stephen O’Keeffe.

As for Cork failing to defend from the front, forget about Jurgen Klopp and his gegen-pressing: Brian Cody has been at this lark since the 2006 All-Ireland final. Kill space. Close gaps. Wing-forwards back on top of their midfielders, midfielders back on top of their half-back line. (One of the reasons for Cork’s defensive security in the mid-noughties, quite aside from the individual excellence of their rearguard, was the mobility of the midfielders. When they were on the back foot, the ability of Jerry O’Connor to pop up deep in defence ensured they were never outnumbered.)

Different generations, albeit not every generation, bring their own changes. Wexford’s aerial game in the 1950s. Galway’s running game and Offaly’s ground game – what a clash of contrasts — in the 1980s.

In the mid-noughties, Cork were innovators with their possession game, albeit not quite as far ahead of the curve as they fancied.

These days they stagger from one fiasco to another, permanently reactive.

From the Sultans of Ping to the Sultans of Pong in the space of a decade.

Is there a case to be made for holding the strikes took up so much time and energy as to have made them take their eye off the ball? That they’ve ignored the game’s tidal shifts is unquestionable.

Hurling has changed rapidly in short order because of Cody, Davy Fitz and Derek McGrath. They’ve all done their bit to reduce — thankfully it will never quite be removed — the randomness of the sport. That guff about winning one’s own position and getting it on to the next man went out with the Ark. Kilkenny and Waterford, the market leaders, do not defend as individuals, or even in lines, but as cohorts and wolf packs.

The grid has been torn up, lines have become nominal and many of the traditional positional requirements have been rendered either obsolete or changed beyond recognition. Have Cork not noticed this or have they simply not been bothered to devise some form of counter-measure? Believing that their own Corkness would see them through? Because it always had?

On that point, one doesn’t hear a lot about the Bourbons these days, although Henri d’Orleans — Count of Paris, author, painter, occasional perfumier and claimant to the French throne — is by all accounts an amiable old cove. Doesn’t mean he’ll be King of France any time soon, though.

At least Cork have made a start. On the last weekend in August they captured all seven of the Munster and All-Ireland under-age tournaments they competed in, winning each of their 24 matches. They sent out a press release to mark the achievement.

Over the top? Not really. Once Upon a Time if Cork had captured a rake of All Ireland under-age titles on the same weekend they’d have tried to impose a news blackout, admittedly. But why hide good work under a bushel these days? Just as long as Diarmuid O’Sullivan’s addendum — that they need to be winning on this scale every year for the next five years — is borne in mind.

On the face of it tonight’s visitors to Páirc Uí Rinn constitute the last opponents Cork need to be meeting right now. Au contraire: they’re perfect opponents. The hosts know what Kilkenny will bring and they’ll know that the only way to cope is to work as feverishly. A hurling match may break out at some stage, but not before a dogfight has taken place.

Of some potential comfort is the fact the MacCarthy Cup holders, already missing Ger Aylward’s directness, have forgotten how to find the net. In the course of their 210 minutes of action to date they’ve managed two goals, both of them in the space of five-minute burst. Aside from that the best they’ve mustered is a few angled shots that Stephen O’Keeffe, Darren Gleeson and James Skehill did well to save but would have done badly to miss.

Of some stimulation to Cork should be the memory of Valentines Night last year, when an understrength Kilkenny came to town and proceeded to out-hunger and out-work their opponents out of Ballintemple and halfway back to Patrick Street.

Cork had no excuse for not knowing what to expect from the visitors that night. They have even less excuse for not knowing what to expect from Kilkenny tonight.

Therein lies the challenge for Kieran Kingston’s troops. They don’t have to win the match. But they must not lose the battle.

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