Making sense of Cork’s collapse at Croke Park

Heuston Station, 6pm Sunday. "Don’t be too hard on us." "They never got going."

“That was the worst ever.” “You can sum that up in one short sentence.”

Having tottered back from Croke Park the followers of the routed army were milling around the station, and what was written on their faces was not so much disappointment as shock, puzzlement and in many cases, downright mystification. Had they really just witnessed what they thought they’d witnessed? From Cork? At Croke Park? In an All Ireland semi-final? Hitting — an afterthought, this, but no less astonishing — 1-11?

One text-speak acronym could have been employed to sum up the communal sense of paralysis. “WTF?!” If you know what that means, and were there in Heuston, you’ll hardly disagree. If not, ask the nearest young person.

It may be unfair to Tipperary, who were impressive without being spectacular, but Sunday was as much about the losers — because of who they were — as it was about the winners. Were this a case of some Connacht or Ulster football team suffering an attack of the vapours on the big stage after a breakthrough provincial triumph, one could understand. And it wasn’t as if Cork hadn’t been surprised in All-Ireland semi-finals at the venue before, going right back to their ambush by Galway in 1975.

Heck, Croke Park had even been the scene of a previous unforeseen punch to the solar plexus of a JBM-managed team, the side that entered the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final as provincial champions and white-hot favourites against Offaly only to be turned over. But at least Cork turned up that afternoon and hurled well in the first half. Here they did neither.

Most sporting surprises are explicable in hindsight; we look back at them with knowledgeable eyes and say, oh yes, there were clues scattered in the form book that we overlooked. Not this one. This was inexplicable in the immediate aftermath and remains inexplicable today. What happened to the Mary Celeste? What happened to Cork in the 2014 All-Ireland semi- final? We don’t know the former and we may never know the latter.

A low lights reel would show a string of small nightmarish episodes, including the two defensive errors that led to Seamus Callanan’s opening goal; the spirit-sapping necklace of wides midway through the first half, the result of simple bad shooting; Bill Cooper offloading too early with a goal chance on; and three Cork defenders falling over one another trying to clear and eventually hand-passing it to nobody. But mishaps like these happen on days like these. They form part of the flora and fauna at the scene of the accident.

A graver indictment of the losers was that usually two or three players stand out amid the wreckage of such a crash; here not a single Cork player did so. And a graver indictment still: all but a point of the winners’ 2-18 arrived from play. Unforgivable.

At half-time, Tipp were entitled to be happy with their performance, less happy with the diminishing returns from the ploy of the long ball to Callanan and distinctly unhappy with the slimness of their lead. At half-time, Cork were entitled to be stridently unhappy with their performance and absolutely thrilled to be still in touch. Any person in the attendance who claims they didn’t anticipate a Leeside surge on the resumption is either blessed with second sight or mendacious in the extreme.

The surge never came. Daniel Kearney had a wide and Aidan Walsh one from a lineball. Two shooting chances were spurned in favour of working the sliotar back across the field. Padraic Maher charged out to create a point for James Woodlock. Walsh had another wide. Nine minutes had passed before Alan Cadogan won a free for Patrick Horgan to point. The tide was beginning to ebb even before Callanan’s second goal.

To a large extent we’re back where we were after last year’s Clare/Limerick All-Ireland semi-final. Like Clare then, Tipp were trained to the minute and had a clear conception of the game they wanted to play. Like the Limerick management then, the Cork management failed to produce a team to perform on the day. Everything issued from that. Individual errors, which Cork made in abundance, accrue inevitably from a systems malfunction. The latter precedes the former.

A bad day for Cork was a bad day for Championship 2014, which had been purring along smoothly, thrills and surprises aplenty, until the All-Ireland quarter-finals. It was also a day which added to accumulating evidence that last year’s All Ireland final two-parter was the most delightful bubble gum but not much more nourishing.

Talking of evidence, while a prima facie case has been established for saying winning the Munster title can damage one’s health, let’s not overdo the histrionics. Galway won the 2012 Leinster title and followed up by beating Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final. No big fuss. If Galway can handle a five-week break right, anyone can.

Might this be some high-flown watershed moment in Cork hurling history, a rococo turning point after which nothing will ever be the same again? It needn’t be. Two years ago, Tipperary lost an All-Ireland semi-final by 18 points; look at them now. But it is the biggest setback to Cork for a number of years, far more serious than their Championship exits of the 2008-11 period precisely because it was suffered by a progressive team as opposed to one treading water.

Apologies to Tipp. They deserve far more praise than space allows here. Well though Callanan, Cathal Barrett, the two midfielders and John O’Dwyer hurled, there has rarely been as obvious a man of the match as Padraic Maher, whose deliveries have never been as measured. The others may have been within 10 lengths of him. May.

Thus the next battle in the long and unending war of that other pair of neighbours is set for next month. Tipp folk are entitled to tell themselves that on the law of averages, they’re overdue a victory — the big fear on the streets of Kilkenny in recent weeks, incidentally. And no better spirit guide than Eamon O’Shea, who has something of the horse whisperer about him, to ensure the players embrace the fear and do it anyway.

Mind you, Tipperary will have to beat something on September 7. On Sunday they beat nothing.


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