The stage was set. Thurles, in May, against Tipperary. Cork had said all the right things. There was the talk of the brutal winter regime that explained if not excused the disappointing league campaign. Even the Tipp lads were a bit spooked by how quiet Cork were. Were we busy breeding mushrooms? We were happy to be in the long grass, ready to pounce – or whatever cliche you want to use and abuse. As it turns out, Cork played like they believed everything they said in the build up to the game. They played like they believed they had no chance. It wasn’t a rope-a-dope. It wasn’t even a contest. It was what we should have expected. A disaster.
In spite of everything there was a big Cork crowd in Thurles, waiting, no, craving for something to shout about, something to support. In the end they didn’t even get anything to complain about. They were just left with a chilling numbness, an apathy that only accompanies that most devastating of revelations; that you’re becoming irrelevant.
There was maybe thirty seconds at the start where Cork put it up to Tipp. The backs tried to get physical with the Tipp forwards. A bit of tussling, a bit of jostling, a bit of getting to know each other. There’s not much point to this, however, if you grant Pádraic Maher the freedom to slot over what was possibly the easiest point he has ever scored. Also, it was Tipp who flaked while we jostled, Bubbles leaving Lorcán on the floor being a prime example. And when your 7-1 down after sixteen minutes, well then any attempt at physicality is too late and looks ridiculous.
The worst thing about the performance was how flat it was. That’s the hardest thing to come to terms with. There’s nothing wrong with losing, or not being good enough. But to go down with such a whimper is very difficult to accept. I don’t mean that as a condemnation of the players or management either. They give up huge amounts of their time and make huge sacrifices that we don’t see or understand. But it’s the flatness that will haunt our hurling souls for a long time to come, unfortunately.
There was a time when Cork could always rely on having the edge when it came to pure hurling. That day has now passed too. Time and again things went wrong playing the ball out of defence. And, like it or lump it, if you’re playing a sweeper (or two full-backs as it seemed to me, watching from the Town-End) you must play the ball out that way to have any chance. There must be quick and snappy support play.
We’re not blessed with great ball winners either. What we couldn’t afford to do was to launch long, high balls down the centre of a defence that included Ronan and Pádraic Maher. So that’s exactly what we did, obviously. Poor Alan Cadogan. He had the beating of his man all day yet he spent the second half trying to track the sliotar through the gloomiest May sky I can remember. Anyway, tactics are irrelevant when the pace of the game is more suited to a challenge match.
Where do we go from here? We can’t just give up, and we can’t have the rest of the hurling world laughing at us for eternity either. The subs’ bench from last Sunday might provide some kind of template. There were eight or nine players who hadn’t previously played championship for Cork. Maybe the qualifiers is the time to blood them and see how they develop. Start thinking of next year now. The team needs to be freshened up. The cold harsh reality is that a day like Sunday had been coming for a long time. Now that it has, maybe we’ll awake from our somnambulism. What’s definitely needed is some kind of long term plan that goes way beyond the brief of Kieran Kingston et al.
And that brings us back to the breeding of mushrooms. In The Departed, Mark Wahlberg’s character, Sgt. Dignam, has a great line explaining that he thinks federal officers should be treated like mushrooms. ‘Feed ’em shit and keep ’em in the dark’ he said. When I look at what’s happened to Cork over the last ten years, I feel like one of those mushrooms. I’m sure I’m not alone.