As has often been said, semi-finals are a special type of purgatory. Win and it’s pure elation. You leave the field or the stadium full of hope and optimism, with the knowledge that history is still yours to make. Lose and you’re…nowhere. You’re forgotten, thrown back down to the role of an also-ran and the game belongs to the story of the winning team.
The cliché goes that they’re only ‘for winning’. Of course, all games are for winning, but the best interpretation of this train of thought is that it doesn’t really matter how you win them. Whether you cruise, waltz, stumble or fall over the line is irrelevant. But once you get to the final, that old chestnut ‘hope’ is given plenty of fuel to thrive on.
Cork blew Wexford away in 2004 and the vision of Tom Kenny powering right down the middle of the pitch before planting it past Damien Fitzhenry is an enduring image of a great team. The skill, team-work, power and athleticism of the team were all on show.
The victory against Clare in 2005 was completely different. It was the proverbial battle. It looked like it might have slipped away, but the way Cork finished made it one of the most satisfying days I’ve ever had following Cork.
Then there was 2006. Waterford, again. The highpoint for that Cork team? Possibly. Anyway, these games have a special place in the memory bank as the right result was achieved on each occasion. That hasn’t been the case in recent times.
There are always high expectations in Cork, and that’s the way it should always be. Currently, Cork are in the midst of the second longest drought in our history. Finishing last year without Liam McCarthy in situ meant that the famine of 1954 to 1966 was surpassed. The longest one yet? 1903 to 1919 and it was from that point onwards that the famous ‘blood and bandage’ was adopted.
What is slightly surprising, however, is that tomorrow will be Cork’s seventh All-Ireland semi-final since 2008. Only Tipperary, with nine, and Kilkenny, with eight, have more appearances while Waterford have also been in seven. The idea of Cork reaching the last four on seven of eleven occasions without finishing the job would have been unthinkable before. But that was before.
But this stat also shows how the era of second chances and back doors should suit a traditional powerhouse like Cork, that is once Cork are organised.
In one of the greatest books about sport ever written, Hurling: the Revolution Years, Denis Walsh shone the light on how the preparation of the likes of Clare and Wexford had surpassed that of the big three during the mid 1990’s. Once Cork, Tipp and Kilkenny got their houses in order, order returned, for the most part.
However, Cork again fell behind in terms of preparation and organisation post-2008 for multiple reasons, reasons that are better off left in the past. After all, all that matters is the now.
Yet, they’ve managed to be seventy minutes away from the big show seven times.
Because all but one of these games was lost, they’ve been largely forgotten. There’s an excuse for every one of them. 2008 was the last kick of a great team that ran into peak Kilkenny. 2010 went wrong when Cork didn’t put a shadow Limerick team to the sword in the Munster semi-final. 2012 against Galway was decent, a sign of progress for a bigger push to come.
2013 was brilliant. Hoggie’s bit of class and opportunism, but the memory of the final obviously dulls it somewhat. 2014 saw Cork just fall flat on their face against Tipperary. There was a lot of baggage taken on board after that.
Last year was an opportunity lost. If Cork had kept fifteen on the field… Good old ‘if’. You could make the argument that it was too soon for this team, but it wasn’t too soon in 1999 or 1966. They are, after all, for winning.
Which brings us to the morrow. Cork are a better team than last year, though it would be nice to have Alan Cadogan available. They’ve answered almost every question that has been asked of them up until this point.
Throughout this year and last, they’ve shown a resilience that was lacking too often around the 2010 to 2016 period. This is probably why so many pundits doubt Cork. But this is a good Cork team. And they’re coming up against a good Limerick team that will take beating.
Legend has it, that prior to becoming a selector on the 1975-1979 Cork team, Christy Ring was very much against the idea of Cork having a coach from Ulster. He got his way and in came Fr. Bertie Troy of Newtownshandrum.
And Cork won five Munsters and three All-Irelands in a row before Ring’s all too early departure from this life.
This wasn’t arrogance from the great man. It was just an innate belief that Cork, well for want of better words, that Cork are Cork, and shouldn’t need help from anyone else. Pure belief, pure ‘Corkness’.
Ring wouldn’t have been overly enamoured by Cork losing an All-Ireland final to Clare, or losing to a Wexford that wasn’t filled with Rackards or, indeed, losing to Galway four times in-a-row in championship. But I think he’d like this team.
What would he think of Limerick? He’d rate them and he’d respect them but he wouldn’t fear them. But he’d believe in Cork in a game that’s there to be won. And he wouldn’t be too worried by how it was done.