There’s where they were and there’s where they are. Jimmy Barry-Murphy knows the difference.
It’s not the first time he’s revived Cork’s hurling fortunes. However, back in the ’90s he benefited from some outstanding underage teams. This year he’s brought a team without minor or U21 silverware, for the most part, to tomorrow’s All-Ireland SHC semi-final with Galway.
“You’d certainly like to be having some success at underage, it’s a big factor,” said Jimmy.
“We found after the Waterford game players were delighted to win because a lot of them hadn’t tasted success at minor or U21. The likes of Darren Sweetnam, Conor Lehane, Jamie Coughlan — all of these lads have come into the Cork set-up without any success at inter-county level. It is a drawback. And I think that’s why they were so thrilled on Sunday to win a game of substance.
“I was thrilled for the players because they showed great character and I hope that win will bring us on a small bit. It generally tends to do so.”
That doesn’t translate as satisfaction for the Cork manager, though. When you ask if Cork are further along than he’d expected, Barry-Murphy rejects the notion out of hand.
“I don’t think we are. It’s certainly where we want to be. We were beaten in the Munster semi-final, the draw fell our way in the sense that we got Offaly at home, which is a big advantage. We had a tough game with them, but we came through it and we got a bit of momentum. We are where we wanted to be and I’m not a bit shocked we are in a semi-final. On any given day the teams under the top three are of a standard and we would hope that the win against Waterford would bring us on another bit to be able to match Galway.”
At the same time, Barry-Murphy knows the home support will eventually want something more tangible than high placings in a notional ranking system. One of his predecessors put it bluntly — “the target in Cork is always an All-Ireland” — but the incumbent balances those high hopes with realism. There’s a bit of expectation certainly and I think people are getting behind the team very, very much which we’re thrilled about,” said Barry-Murphy.
“But I also think there’s a level or realism. People who know their hurling in Cork know we are the outsiders of the four teams. We’re realistic about that, but we feel we can work very, very hard to bridge that and be a match for any of them.”
One of the strongest grounds for optimism was the display against Tipperary. During the week, selector Seanie McGrath said Cork had the result against Waterford but not the performance and had enjoyed the performance against Tipp but not the result.
Barry-Murphy agrees the Tipp game was Cork’s high point so far: “It was, we played very well on the day and with a bit more experience at home it was a game we could have won.
“We had goal chances and didn’t take them. I would agree that it was our best performance and showed we can rise to a certain level. The extra man might have helped us in the end, but I still thought it was a very, very good display. That performance against Tipp wouldn’t be a match for Galway on the basis of their Leinster final performance. That’s the ambition.”
He’s made changes and recalled players to reach that level again. Take the renaissance of Stephen McDonnell at full-back.
“Certainly Stephen was very disappointed to be left out after the league final,” said Barry-Murphy. “No question about that and maybe even people thought we were a little bit hard on him. That’s the job we have trying to pick the team. In relation to his attitude, training and performance in training matches put him back in contention. He was showing great form so we picked him for last Sunday. He was showing great form in training and I would like to think we pick the players showing form in training.
“Equally, Sean Óg played in an A versus B game the previous Sunday and was outstanding — we had no choice but to pick him because of his form and he repaid that. Players coming in have a point to prove and we are trying to juggle it around on any given day. We’ll chop and change where we see fit and we’ll pick certain players where we see fit.”
And when they’re not fit... “Eoin Cadogan was very sick before the Waterford game and that’s not to make excuses because he’s not making any excuses, which he never has. He was sick a few days before the game, he opted to play and he was out sick for a few days after the game. He has been in good form since. He feels he didn’t play to his best, but that’s the pressure you have playing at this level.
“He’s a very fit lad, he has a great attitude and I have no worries about Eoin in Croke Park. He’s a great lad. You’d like, maybe, if he was doing a bit more hurling because it’s hard to going from one week to the next. It would be hard on anyone. We feel that if we want him to play a certain role he will.”
It’s a dozen years since Barry-Murphy managed at inter-county level. He pays due tribute to the fitness levels, but he isolates the increased importance of the panel as the key change – and the need for strength in depth.
“Last Sunday proved for me, with the game so intense, that you need a very, very good bench. I think that helped us against Waterford and was a very big factor for us. They got us over the line in the end. I have been watching hurling very closely over the last few years, but it is still a learning curve.
“What you learn as a management team is how young players come through and able to make the step up. I’m thrilled about how some of the younger players have come on. They’re showing the mentality to play at this level.”
Some things don’t change, though. Cork never packed an inferiority complex for weekends in Dublin when he played, and it’s surplus to requirements now as well. “I’m optimistic by nature. Cork going to Croke Park... we’ll always feel we have a chance. We’re outsiders, but I feel the games we’ve had will bring us on.”
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