The Patrick Horgan condundrum: Do you start or leave off an icon?

Against Waterford last Sunday, there was a strong case that Cork were better in the 30-plus minutes when their great forward was no longer on the field. So what happens now?
The Patrick Horgan condundrum: Do you start or leave off an icon?

Munster GAA Senior Hurling Championship Round 4, FBD Semple Stadium, Tipperary 1/5/2022 Cork vs Clare Cork’s Patrick Horgan appeals for a free Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

It was a day to celebrate – or at least celebrate him. Last Sunday in Walsh Park Patrick Horgan became the leading scorer in championship history – a feat worthy of his astonishing talent, dedication and service – as against the head Waterford were bate, the season saved, or at least prolonged for another week.

Kieran Kingston duly recognised and acknowledged the magnitude of what had occurred. Think of all the great hurlers and scorers this ancient game has offered. In Horgan’s own club alone: the Glen once had a fella you might have heard of by the name of Christy Ring. In his own county: Paddy (Sars) Barry, Jimmy Barry, Cummins, Charlie, Joe Deane. In Munster, the province of Mackey and Doyle and English. In all of hurling, before and since they brought in a backdoor: Rackard and Keher in the 20th century, followed by Carey, Flynn, Kelly, Shefflin, Callanan, Canning. Now Horgan stands above them all.

“It’s unbelievable,” the Cork manager told media members shortly after the game. “To have done what he has done, for hurling, and not just in Cork. And what he continues to do. And nationally, a player who has only played in two All-Ireland finals throughout his career, but still has that record of scoring – it’s an incredible achievement. An incredible achievement. We all express our congratulations and thanks, for what he has done and what he continues to do.” 

It was fitting there was an almost religious cadence and sentiment to Kingston’s words (‘We all express our thanks, for what he has done and what he continues to do’ could be slipped into your mass for ‘We worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory’, just as the latter refrain could have been echoed last Sunday by Kingston). And given the subject and object of such plaudits, there was no doubting their sincerity.

But while few Cork people, especially Kingston, wanted to say it aloud, there was also a certain irony and even tinge of poignancy about Walsh Park last Sunday.

Just as in the fourth minute of the first half Horgan scored Cork’s opening point to overtake Canning as the championship’s all-time leading scorer, in the fourth minute of the second half Horgan was substituted, making way for Tim O’Mahony.

The potential significance of the latter moment wasn’t lost on the RTÉ Radio One commentary team. In the crow’s nest with Ger Canning was Shane McGrath, the former Tipperary hurler, who shared the field with Horgan when the Corkman made his debut coming off the bench in a wedged Páirc Uí Chaoimh 14 years ago.

“I think it’s a big statement by the Cork management, to say ‘Pat Horgan, you’re not working hard enough, you’ve only scored four frees, you had a bad wide,’” said McGrath. “‘Get him off the field. Get on a guy who is going to work hard for the team.’ Tim O’Mahony is that guy and he’s gone in full forward there…” 

“So,” said Canning, catching McGrath’s pass and running with it, “we’re looking at probably the Cork of the future, without the likes of the great Patrick Horgan…’” 

It is impossible to think that future will arrive as quickly as this weekend. That Cork could choose to play a full championship game without a great. After all, Cork had outscored Waterford by two points during Horgan’s time on the field last Sunday, a period in which they had obviously signalled their intent and set the tone for the day. Horgan obviously made some contribution to that lead in “what he continues to do”.

And yet there was a strong case that Cork were even better in the 30-plus minutes when he was no longer on the field, a period of time in which they were playing against the breeze. That in a collective performance most noted for the ferocity of Cork’s play, Horgan’s own was hardly in keeping with it. That whatever about being a luxury, he was an outlier on that count or on any tackle count. In his 38 minutes on the field, he only touched the ball once from play. Players like his replacement O’Mahony, or Alan Connolly, or Conor Lehane, another wristy veteran more known for his stickwork than his workrate, had a significantly greater impact, again something not lost on McGrath.

“That crash of bodies between Conor Lehane and Calum Lyons, you wouldn’t see that in the Aviva Stadium,” McGrath said at one juncture when Lehane had scored only one of his eventual three points from play. “Conor Lehane has been brilliant. It’s his workrate. The workrate of the whole Cork team has been absolutely brilliant so far. They’re taking the hits, they’re giving the hits. And I just think this is a different Cork.” 

After the game he reiterated how more direct and aggressive Cork had been, epitomised by how they were able to “deliver the ball quicker into the likes of Alan Connolly” and O’Mahony “working so hard coming on with half a leg”.

Which begs the question: what do you do with Horgan this weekend and indeed the rest of this championship? Or at least what does Kingston do with him?

Start him again and stick with the rotation that ultimately got the precious W in Walsh Park?

Or will May 15 go down as the day not only Patrick Horgan became the leading scorer in championship history but the one he started his last championship game for Cork, in Munster at least?

Crazy and indeed sacrilegious as it sounds, are Cork better when their greatest player of the last 15 years isn’t on the field?

And yet when you let it settle, it isn’t the most outlandish notion, or at least uncommon. For over 20 years now US sports has pondered a similar phenomenon, to the point one of its most celebrated commentators, the podfather himself Bill Simmons, coined a term for it: the Ewing Theory. That for some reason or another, a team inexplicably gets better in the absence of a star athlete who receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest despite not having won the championship.

Basically, back in 1999, the same year Horgan’s native county would bring Liam MacCarthy back to the banks, another celebrated city renowned for its witty if occasionally chippy citizenry were in the thralls of a championship challenge: the New York Knicks, after a famine that far exceeded the one Mark Landers would reference in the rain, had against the odds made it through to the NBA finals for only the second time in 26 years. Their star player for the previous decade and a half had been a man mountain called Patrick Ewing, a member of the immortal US Olympic Dream Team and an 11-time All Star. He hadn’t just revived a franchise; he had carried it and a city, a bit like Horgan has been a one-man reminder of the glorious tradition of the team and city he has represented.

Yet during that 1999 season when an ageing Ewing was hampered by injury, the Knicks won as many regular season games as they did without him. And then when he tore his Achilles tendon in Game Two of a second-round playoff series against their old nemesis, the hard-nosed Indiana Pacers and everyone assumed they had no chance, the Knicks’ supporting cast duly rose their game to win three of the next four games and advance to the eastern conference finals which they’d win too. Hence was born the Patrick Ewing Theory.

Indeed such was Simmons’ conviction in the theory that he presciently predicted in his old Page 2 Sports Guy blog that the best thing that could happen to the New England Patriots was if they were to somehow lose their franchise quarterback and four-time Pro Bowl star, Drew Bledsoe; months later Bledsoe did indeed get injured, and his replacement, a No.199 draft pick by the name of Tom Brady, came in and led them downfield and to the Promised Land.

Could the Patrick Ewing Theory apply to Patrick Horgan?

That could be harsh on Horgan, just as the former was a bit unfair on Ewing; the Knicks most likely would not even have won their first-round playoff series against Miami only for the contribution of Ewing, and had he not got injured, who’s to say the Knicks still wouldn’t have advanced to the NBA finals and possibly even won them with being able to get some minutes from their most accomplished player?

The Ewing-Horgan Theory is certainly not one any public figure in Cork will openly subscribe to; when I contacted one former player for his take on what should be Horgan’s role going forward, he enquired in our very brief correspondence if I was off my head or did I think he was off his or did I want the entire northside of Cork to take it off for him?

But if anything by refusing to declare his answer, he gave it. While it’s the question everyone in Cork is secretly pondering, it’s the question few want to broach or openly answer.

One Corkman who has put his head above the parapet and even on the block is the county’s own Page 2 Sports Guy, the aptly-titled Bold Thady Quill, AKA Eoin Keane, who like John Coleman regularly writes excellent blogs on Cork GAA, especially the fortunes of its county hurling team. Albeit he has enough sense and reverence and respect to frame or at least title the debate as the Hoggy Conundrum rather than the Patrick Ewing or Horgan Theory.

“Perfecting [the] blend between artistry and attrition, between the fancy and the fundamental, has often been decried as the root of all Cork’s evils,” he’d write during the week. “In the wake of Sunday, the Hoggy Conundrum now acts as the absolute embodiment of this clash of doctrines. It is an unescapable truth that at 35, Patrick Horgan, the once in a generational talent that has carried Cork’s attack for almost a decade and a half, is incapable of providing the pace and physicality that is now required over 70 minutes of high-octane championship hurling. In all honesty, he probably never was, only that his cerebral genius and mercurial wrists more than compensated for shortcomings elsewhere.

“After his goal against Galway in the league back in March, Horgan put his finger to his lips, the universally accepted signal that, in his eyes at least, the doubters had been silenced. The sad reality is, however, that you can’t shush Father Time.” 

That daddy is indeed a monster to keep quiet. Henry Shefflin started his last championship game at 33. Likewise Joe Canning, the man Horgan passed out last week; the day he overtook Shefflin to become the temporary all-time championship scorer would be his last day in the Galway jersey. Seamus Callanan, another member of that exceptional rookie class of 2008, hasn’t featured at all this year, one in which he turns 34 himself. DJ was 34 when he finished up. Paul Flynn was 33. Eoin Kelly was 32. The great gunslingers of this millennium only have a licence to shoot for so long before it expires.

But that’s not to say that Horgan should or be asked to hand in the badge right now. He’s not finished. It’s just that he’s now, to borrow a term of Jim Gavin’s, possibly more of a Finisher.

It’s the phrase Gavin used when explaining to Bernard Brogan that he wouldn’t be starting in the 2016 All-Ireland football final replay; the F word, rather than the D word, just seemed far more respectful and appropriate for a player of such stature. Brogan duly come off the bench after being ‘dropped’ to score a point that would ultimately be the difference between themselves and Mayo.

When you’re dealing with players of such stature though, matters have to be handled sensitively. You can’t patronise them but you can’t be overly-blunt or harsh either. Maurice Fitzgerald walked away from Kerry at 33 because he either had an issue with his role or the way it was sold or told to him.

Kingston, for all the criticism he has received in recent weeks, has the manner to get that right. He has the required sensitivity, but as the past seven days has displayed and Keane has written about, a certain ruthlessness now too.

“Not many managers would have whipped a player that had just etched himself in the record books,” Keane wrote. “Fewer still would have replaced him with a half-back.

“And while it is fair to say that the Kieran Kingston won’t be welcomed down in Quinlans, the Groves or any of the other public houses dotted around Blackpool for quite a while, his call unquestionably paid dividends. The redeployment of Tim O’Mahony in the full-forward line alongside Alan Connolly offered a new dimension to Cork’s attack and perhaps now, the circuitous route to goal, and all the hazards that it brings, may no longer be seen as the only viable option.” 

Regardless of the Cork team named on Friday night and whichever actually starts on Sunday, Cork and Kingston will still have thanks to give to Horgan. They’re likely still best with him. Just maybe not with everything through him, in him.

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