The Bard has a line for it. The Bard usually has.
“The worst is not so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’”
For Cork, was this the worst? Worse than the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final deconstruction by Tipperary, or the flattening by Galway 12 months ago, or the schooling from Tipp in the rain a few weeks back? Perhaps not.
It doesn’t matter. One way or another we have been here with Cork again and again in recent times. There is nothing left to say. Structures, planning, county board priorities, yadda yadda. Been there, discussed that. Enough.
Rather than bore ourselves by retreading ancient ground, then, let’s cut to the real story of Saturday night in Thurles.
In order to cut to that, however, one must first allow the frame to dissolve and the picture to rewind six decades to the 1956 All-Ireland final.
Wexford entered it as MacCarthy Cup holders, having crushed Galway in the 1955 decider. All well and good up to a point. The point being, to win an All-Ireland free from ifs, buts and caveats they’d have to — and they were the first to accept this — win one by beating a Munster team in the final. Preferably Cork, their conquerors in 1954, that most endlessly parsed of finals.
In a match for the ages they did. Wexford 2-14 Cork 2-8. Art Foley’s save, however improbable or otherwise, from Christy Ring. Nicky Rackard’s decisive goal. Ring chaired off the field by his conquerors. Wexford hadn’t beaten Cork again in the championship until Saturday night.
This wasn’t just a victory, therefore. This was a commemoration.
In seeing off the men in red, Liam Dunne’s men honoured their forebears of 1956, those boys of Wexford who fought with heart and hand. In so doing they also tipped their cap to the men of 1996, Dunne among them. The ghost of Nicky Rackard and the living, breathing, very much not-ghost of Liam Griffin will both have rested happily on Saturday night.
In our hurling lifetime we have witnessed some strange and wonderful sights. Clare in 1995 and 2013. Griffin’s Riverdance of Sport in 1996. The All-Ireland finals of 2009 and ’14, the latter affair with its mindboggling total of 54 scores.
Wexford beating Cork in the championship for the first time in 60 years was far from the most remarkable of these occurrences.
But it was an honour to witness it and it was terrific it happened and it was heartening to know that the old game still has the capacity for surprise.
Granted, it was no classic. For Wexford to win it couldn’t be. The opening 10 minutes equated to a basketball match with ash plants.
A point at one end, straight down the field, a point at the other end. Your turn, now my turn, now your turn. Cork 0-5 Wexford 0-4 after nine minutes.
There followed a simulation of a Centre Court rally at Wimbledon — Wexford’s spare man to Cork defenders in space — that’s best forgotten about. To repeat, no classic. But what of it?
At half-time, it was 0-9 to 0-12, this after Cork had halved a six-point deficit in injury time. Not that that would turn out to bother Wexford, no more than the absence of seven first-choice — or near enough to first-choice — players.
They showed application. They showed poise, those loose balls out of defence apart. Above all they showed resilience. They kept taking Cork’s blows, even if the blows were jabs rather than uppercuts. The one heavy punch that Cork did land, Daniel Kearney’s goal nine minutes from time, prompted an instant response in the shape of a point by Lee Chin and another by Conor McDonald.
Ah yes, Chin. Man of the match by two miles despite McDonald’s 0-13.
A year or two ago Liam Griffin told Chin that he had to become better known for his hurling prowess than for his surname and his looks. It was not an unfair comment. Chin was an engaging character, a fine competitor and a superb athlete, but not a man routinely accused of being a stylist. After his 0-4 haul on Saturday night one can erase a few qualms about his technique. Nobody ever had any qualms about his attitude or workrate.
Or take David Dunne. David Dunne? Indeed. Me neither. No surprise there; last year he was playing junior A hurling, and junior A hurling in Wexford is not the entity it is in Cork.
It didn’t matter here. Dunne spent the second half getting on the ball and running at the opposition. He might have had a goal midway through when set up by Chin but was forced wide and missed narrowly. Six minutes later he had an even better chance but, clearly never having seen the video of Nicky English’s goal in the 1987 Munster final, he kicked the sliotar wide at the same Killinan End. Still, Barry Kelly called the play back for a free McDonald converted and a third of the damage was undone.
Their 11 first-half wides aside — and inaccuracy is never an excuse — Cork will have no complaints. Unlike the Tipperary match and last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final versus Galway, this was a match played on their terms. It was open, flowing and not remotely physical. The conclusion has to be that Cork emptied themselves seven nights earlier. The visit of Dublin was a fixture they dared not lose. They didn’t, but it took them all the way to injury time to win it.
Here there were a few nice points from Conor Lehane and a few nice points from Luke O’Farrell. The usual icing on a cake that wasn’t. With Seamus Harnedy out of sorts the forward line lacked the personality to impose itself on proceedings. Compare and contrast with Richie Hogan at Croke Park eight days ago.
Hogan’s second-half display wasn’t about skill – well, not completely anyway. It certainly wasn’t about the merits of size. Instead it was all about attitude and mental strength and hunger and bloodymindedness. Hogan scored his five points not because they were handed to him on a plate but because his force of personality brought them about. Ask Lee Chin.
Kieran Kingston will escape criticism for this latest debacle and so he should. The person left holding the parcel when the music stops is never the one to blame. Maybe Wexford spared Cork the embarrassment of being rolled over again by Galway in a quarter-final, maybe not. But it wasn’t going to end well whatever way it ended. Call this a mercy killing.
For the losers a continuation of the worst of times. For the winners a day like they haven’t had for 60 years. Hurrah for the bold Shelmaliers.
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