AN era ended in showery Semple Stadium on Saturday evening, but could it be that another era has begun?
Over the last decade, since 1999, and whenever they have had their act together, this current generation of Cork players have been there or thereabouts in the All-Ireland championship shake-up.
During that period they reached five All-Ireland finals and won three, but during that period also they have endured three major draining confrontations with their own county board.
They were a controversial side, no question about that, and their style on and off the field split the hurling world nationwide, divided their own county; one element was never in question, however, and that was their character, and it was in evidence again in this All-Ireland third-round qualifier.
Even against a patently superior side, comprehensively outhurled in the second-half, Cork were still there at the death with a chance of salvaging a draw, perhaps even a win. Had even one of the two goal chances that fell to them in those closing minutes been taken, who knows how it might all have ended? Instead, Niall McCarthy’s 68th-minute shot blazed wide from close range, the goal at his mercy, and two minutes later Aisake O hAilpín just failed to get his hands to a breaking ball, again inside the Galway cover.
Two golden opportunities missed, Galway prevailed and justice was done. Cork are gone from the 2009 championship, but it was more than that; even if there are only four survivors from 1999 (Donal Óg Cusack, Seán Óg O hAilpín, Timmy McCarthy, Ben O’Connor), this was surely also the end of an era, and Cork will now have to go into serious rebuilding mode.
Even as Cork leave the stage, however, could it be that Galway, finally, have found their voice? This was their fourth championship match this season, and while they won plaudits for the way they put it up to Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final loss, for the subsequent win over Clare in Ennis, this was probably their most impressive performance to date, certainly their most complete.
Not because their hurling was from the very top drawer, because it wasn’t; not because they beat a top- class team that was still at the peak of its power, because they didn’t; simply because they did what they had to do, and they did it as a team.
One day this Galway team will purr, much as Brian Cody’s Cats have purred so many times over their own period of dominance in the last decade, a period when Kilkenny have outscored Cork two to one where it most mattered, in All-Ireland titles. For the moment, however, and on dog-day afternoons such as we had in Thurles last Saturday, what they are learning – on the fly – is how to just grind out the win. This wasn’t a classic, not even close, but from one end of the field to the other Galway worked like dogs; they growled, they barked, they snapped at the heels of every Cork player who happened to find himself in possession. Most of all, however, they hunted in packs; they worked with and for each other, and nowhere was this more evident than in the decisive score, the only goal of the match.
Just a point in front and only seven minutes remaining, Galway substitute Kevin Hayes won possession down the right wing, glanced up, saw Joe Canning had stolen into space behind the Cork full-back line. Hayes’ brilliant pass, was taken in the hand on the turn by young Joe, and he raced down on goal. His powerful shot was body-blocked by Donal Óg Cusack, but in perfect supporting position for the break was another Galway sub, Joe Gantley who rolled it into the net.
That passage of play encapsulated everything that was good about Galway on this evening; the strength in depth in the panel, with two subs waiting their turn and taking full advantage; the ability of ‘Chunky’ Hayes, in picking out his clubmate, the ambition in Joe Canning and Galway in going for the goal when a lot of other forwards would have been happy with the point; the support offered by Gantley.
The game-winning moment, but also, perhaps, the moment when two eras met, and passed, heading in opposite directions.
The story of the game itself is quickly told, because in truth there isn’t a whole lot to tell. Galway led at the break by a point, 0-8 to 0-7, having wasted several good opportunities (nine wides to five for Cork), but were fortunate enough to have that lead, Joe Canning with six points from six frees, three of those from inside his own half, while all Cork’s seven points came from play. Two of those came from the ever-outstanding Ben O’Connor, another two from Kieran ‘Fraggie’ Murphy, having one of his best games for Cork, but already it was evident – not for the first time in this era Cork were struggling badly up front, and in the half-forward line especially. Not for the first time in this era either, however, the sideline was too slow to react, and only magnificent defence by Cork – a brilliant first-half reaction save of a point-blank bullet by Joe Canning by Cusack the highlight – kept the favourites in the match. Shane O’Neill did a superb man-marking job on Joe Canning (spent much of the first half at corner-forward, for some odd reason), Eoin Cadogan and Conor O’Sullivan also did well, while Ronan Curran and Seán Óg O hAilpín were outstanding in the half-back line, Jerry O’Connor also working effectively in midfield.
The second half, however, belonged to Galway. They too were on top in defence, Colm Callanan growing in stature by the game with his coolness between the posts, Fergal Moore, Shane Kavanagh and Ollie Canning rock solid at the back, Damien Joyce, John Lee and emergency wing-back Eoin Lynch also doing well. In midfield, Ger Farragher proved an inspired selection, in this half especially, while up front, the work-rate of the likes of Aongus Callanan typified what this Galway team is about under manager John McIntyre. Time was when Galway had really pretty forwards, flyers who could score from anywhere, given the right kind of ball; under McIntyre, however, it’s about working hard, about winning your own battle, winning your own ball. As he had been against both Kilkenny and Clare, and as he can expect to be for the rest of his career, Joe Canning was again well marked on Saturday evening, but again the big youngster worked his socks off; again also, however, the rest of the Galway attack chipped in, and two points from Andy Smith, three from Damien Hayes (good to see him get a decent return), the goal from Joe Gantley, the point from Chunky – all augurs well for Galway.
If you’re a true hurling follower, you mourn the passing of this near-great Cork team, a team who brought so much to the game; you celebrate also, however, celebrate because this could – finally – be the long-promised arrival of a new force in hurling, an arrival that’s badly needed.
Scorers for Galway: J. Canning 0-10 (0-8 frees, 0-1 s/l, 0-1 65); D. Hayes 0-3; J. Gantley 1-0; A. Smith 0-2; A. Callanan 0-2; G. Farragher, K. Hayes, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Cork: B. O’Connor 0-9 (0-6 frees, 0-1 65); K. Murphy 0-2; S. Óg O hAilpín, J. Gardiner, P. Horgan, N. McCarthy, 0-1 each.
Subs for Galway: J. Gantley (Healy 49); K. Hayes (Donnellan 59); E. Forde (Hynes 69); A. Coen (Lynch 71).
Subs for Cork: N. McCarthy (T. McCarthy inj. 54); T. Óg Murphy (Horgan 56); G. Callinan (K. Murphy 59); C. Naughton (Cronin 64).
Referee: B. Gavin (Offaly).
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