Sometimes it’s better to begin at the end. As we hurtled towards Cork, late on Saturday night, with our tails tucked firmly between our legs, we were angry and we let it all out. Three generations of Cork supporter vented their spleen, questioned character and characters, looked at the bigger picture, thought of precedents and grasped desperately for a modicum of hope. It’s good to talk, but I don’t know whether anybody that really matters is prepared to listen.
The footballers were, surprisingly, the saving grace of the day, even in defeat. They played with pride but they still lost a game that they should have won. It was the younger players who impressed the most. Ian Maguire tired towards the end but he is turning into a leader, Brian O’Driscoll never stopped trying and Peter Kelleher has an eye for goal and a presence at the edge of the square. If Colm O’Neill had seventy minutes in him they might have closed it out. Now, they must build on this performance and avoid relegation. Most importantly, this kind of performance has to become their absolute minimum. No excuses. Work-rate, desire, pride, competitiveness, physicality, aggression; they’re the foundation. Now that the footballers have re-discovered them, they might teach them to the hurlers.
Had the footballers performed like the hurlers did on Saturday night they would have been lambasted, castigated, ridiculed. It was deplorable. In any sport what you crave is time and space. You crave them because you get so little of them. Unless, of course, you’re playing against Cork. Dublin were made look like world-beaters. However, world-beaters they are not but when you’re going for a ball, and you know you’re not going to be challenged seriously for it, well then you’re going to make hay. The three goals shipped in the first half were just given away so easily, so softly. It’s not the first time either that an opposing team has been allowed to coast through the Cork defence without a hand being put on them. As Pat Ryan said afterwards, it’s simply unacceptable.
I felt sorry for Seamus Harnedy as the game progressed. He didn’t have his best game but his attitude was (and always is) superb. He never stopped chasing, harrying and working. He must get frustrated with what goes on around him sometimes. Stephen Murphy made a huge difference when he came on by carrying out the most basic of tasks expected of an inter-county hurler (or any hurler for that matter); he competed strongly for the ball. Again, it was the young showing the old how to do it. It’s still much too early to write off the year but it’s imperative that Cork bring the minimum when they play Kilkenny on Saturday. Otherwise we’re in grave danger of becoming the most distressful thing of all; irrelevant.
I mentioned anger at the beginning. It really was the predominant emotion as I watched the nightmare unfold before me. However, it was a much deeper anger than the one you’d associate with a simple, heavy defeat. It was a rage against what has been left happen to Cork hurling. We’re now fifteen years removed from our last All-Ireland minor title, eighteen years from our last U-21 title. These were the teams that backboned our last All-Ireland winning senior team eleven long, barren years ago.
What hurts the most, however, is the indifference to the malaise. Clare are going through an era that’s as good as anything that they have ever had. Yet, after two years of underachievement since their 2013 All-Ireland success they had Brian Lohan publically looking for a root and branch examination of hurling in Clare. That doesn’t mean that Lohan is right, but it does show that he cares. Where’s that sense of defiance in Cork? There’s the odd lament for the demise of the Mon and Farna but that’s it really. Of course, when you look at the facts, that argument is just plain lazy, but it is easier than facing reality. It’s as if a gigantic case of groupthink has taken hold and we just can’t escape it.
Monday brought me back to Croke Park sooner than I would have wanted. I had a few moments to myself so I wandered the Lower Cusack and sought out Ring’s picture from the ‘Team of the Millennium’. The biting wind reminded me that I’d been pretty much freezing for that past three days but it also made me consider the time of year. Saturday brings a chance of some kind of redemption, some kind of fresh start. It simply has to be taken.