Back about 10 or 15 years ago during the days of the late and still lamented Sunday Tribune, the hurling correspondent — a handsome and debonair fellow, can’t think of his name — was straining to sum up the prospects of the men in red and white in a match preview, writes Enda McEvoy.
He solved this mighty internal struggle by asserting that “Cork are Cork” and more or less left it there.
(Don’t ask me the year, the match, the opposition or the result. All of these have been long forgotten by everyone except a chap who reminds me of the “Cork are Cork” line every now and then.)
Cork are Cork. It was intended as a snappy observation rather than a profound pensée. It meant nothing and it meant everything. It recognised that Cork mediocrity at any given point in time did not preclude their potential to set the skies on fire shortly afterwards. It was a glib soundbite yet it was underpinned by the weight of a century of hurling history. It was the most cliched kind of GAA truism yet it was inarguable.
But that was 10 or 15 years ago. These days Cork are Not Cork and have been that for a long time.
The last occasion they were temporarily otherwise was in 2013 when they nearly won an All-Ireland almost solely by virtue of being Cork. Yet 2013, as we know, was an outlier in so many ways. Kilkenny and Tipperary returned less than gruntled from their unexpected summer holidays and resumed normal service; Clare didn’t kick on; Cork have returned to being Not Cork.
Granted, the next sentence constitutes a leap, as does any statement that contains the word ‘may’. But still: Today may be the day when they finally start the journey back to a blessed and blissful state of Corkness. Today must be the day when they at least show evidence that they’ll eventually do so.
If they win, great. If they lose in a blaze of glory, great. Really. Because nothing could be more soul-destroying than last year’s insipidness in defeat against Tipp and Wexford. Once they were beaten first time out by Tipp, and the season before by Waterford, they were instantly going nowhere, and not at pace either. Red men walking.
Youth by its nature doesn’t dwell on disappointment. Perform well today, hang in there afterwards, and Cork, given top of the ground, could be a significantly better team in late July than in late May.
What’s more, Kieran Kingston’s management team are now a second-season entity and as such ought to have acquired some nous along the way. Nor, even with the benefit of hindsight, does their decision to deploy a sweeper 12 months ago look any more irrational than it appeared at the time. Can you think of another man later in the year who may have spent the winter wishing he’d followed suit against Tipp? Thought so.
In principle, an extra defender was an eminently valid response to the firepower of the Blue and Gold. In the event Cork carried off the gambit badly, though it shouldn’t be forgotten that Tipp possessed three men in the full-forward line capable of drifting out the field and to the flanks and landing points from all distances and angles. No tactical system, no matter how sophisticated, is proof against good, old-fashioned wristy accuracy.
Cork will return to first principles and fair enough too. Derek McGrath, for one, believes their attack is potentially as good as that of Tipperary. To justify his faith they’ll need to arrive at the kind of cohesiveness and coherence they’ve lacked these past three seasons. Cork’s attacking whole has invariably amounted to less than the sum of the parts.
Patrick Horgan: An artist and a dead-ball magician but not a hunter-gatherer. Conor Lehane: Terrific on his day but never terrifying. Alan Cadogan: Lightning-quick and invariably good for a couple of early points but tends to fade thereafter. Seamus Harnedy? No qualms there.
A genuine squadron leader with scoring ability and cuttin‘.
Shane Kingston’s potential has been well flagged. Luke Meade compiled 2-7 in six starts during the league. Both possess pace, incisiveness, and a welcome — and in modern terms distinctly unCorklike — preference for the green flag option over the white. Daddy Kingston wasn’t even obliged to roll the dice. The unspoken hope must be that an injection of youthful fearlessness will help lift the boats of Horgan et al and serve to render the bottom line more nearly the sum of the parts.
The underdogs to try and run Tipp off their feet? It’s the obvious strategy. Cathal Barrett, back from injury, was badly exposed against Galway and at his age, Mickey Cahill, hamstring notwithstanding, is not getting faster. While the notion that the champions’ half-backs “don’t like being run at” — what defenders do? — shouldn’t be overdone, Seamus Kennedy and the elder Maher will not want to spend the afternoon being forced to turn and chase back.
Besides, Cork’s league form offers grounds for hope. True, there was the second-half fadeout against Kilkenny as well as the Dublin fiasco, but there was also a cracking performance at Walsh Park and an even better one versus Tipp. How they then contrived to lose to Limerick is less of a mystery than it appeared at the time. From this vantage point, it’s clear that the tank had run dry after the physical and emotional petrol expended against Waterford and the All-Ireland champions.
Perhaps the best way of framing the league final is to say that every county was entitled to one discard during the campaign. Galway against Wexford, Kilkenny away to Clare, Cork themselves versus Dublin, and so on. Tipperary’s discard just happened to be the showpiece fixture.
That isn’t as odd as it sounds. After all, Wexford reached the semi-finals and had a thoroughly fabulous league whereas Limerick reached the semi-finals and had a thoroughly depressing league. Paradoxes everywhere.
At this stage the wisest course of action is to ascribe Tipperary’s defeat to a systems failure and leave it at that. They were all too bad to be true for it to be anything else. When John McGrath is missing scoreable frees from the off you know it’s not your day.
Where would the post-mortem start anyway? Darren Gleeson flatfooted. Barrett a mile off the pace.
The Maher brothers isolated because Galway took due and sensible care not to dump the sliotar on top of them. Steven O’Brien confirming the qualms about his suitability for this particular career swerve. More to the point, where would the post-mortem stop?
One caveat, and a sizeable one at that, nonetheless. Even multiple champions, or would-be multiple champions, are entitled to the occasional off-day. But on those off-days, multiple champions don’t lose by 16 points. Would-be multiple champions shouldn’t either.
The intervening four-week gap might have been arranged by Michael Ryan. Enough time for Tipp to analyse the league decider, insufficient time to obsess over it. Perfect. Move on. Next ball. Next game.
Yet here’s another caveat. Last year, everything went swimmingly for Ryan. Everything. Even the one apparent setback — the dismissal of John O’Dwyer against Limerick — morphed into a positive and became a source of creative tension. It opened up a place in the forward line, increased the competition for starting berths, and made sure O’Dwyer kept his nose clean thereafter.
They won’t expect the voyage to run as smoothly again — and they can’t. The first thing would-be multiple champions have to deal with is life and the slings and arrows it throws at them.
For incurably optimistic Cork fans — and Leesiders are of course the most introverted, dour, and downbeat species known to man — the annals offer a little succour. Twelve years after Ringy’s eighth in 1954 came 1966, the year of liberation. Twelve years after 2005 comes 2017. In hurling, as you’ve only read here a million times, history repeats itself over and over again.
Clutching at straws? It’s not clutching at straws to believe that at some stage this summer, Cork will remember how to be Cork again.
Tipperary to win but their opponents, for however long they’re capable of sustaining the effort, to hurl with the dash the men in red used to. That’s the stage it’s got to: Trusting that Cork rediscover ancient glories. The chap from the Sunday Tribune wouldn’t have believed it.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved