So if 2008 was the last kick of a great team, and 2010 went wrong when Cork didn’t put a shadow Limerick team to the sword, and 2012 was a sign of progress for a bigger push to come, and 2013 was brilliant but 2014 saw Cork fall flat, and last year was an opportunity lost, what exactly was yesterday?
It was pure, unadulterated pain. The type of loss that sticks in the craw and lengthens the winter. The kind of loss that will come back into your mind as if from nowhere on a dreary night in November and make you cranky as you gaze wistfully into the fire. The kind of day that makes you dread having to watch the All-Ireland final.
Six points up with eight minutes to go. Six points up and going really well with eight minutes to go. And it all went wrong. The worst thing about it is that nothing really big happened.
There’s no specific incident that will haunt anybody, no devastating mistake that you can focus in on, no goal, for instance. It was just a continuous chain of events that continuously went against Cork that will play on a loop through our heads in the weeks to come.
But maybe the signs were there from the start. The opening exchanges were very much like the Tipp game in 2014; Cork playing well but not putting it on the scoreboard. When players like Fitzgibbon, Lehane and Horgan miss chances that you’d normally back them to convert, you tend to get worried. You worry that they will come back to haunt you at some stage.
But once they played their way into it, Cork recovered and had the better of the exchanges. Yes, Aaron Gillane did miss two goal chances but I’m convinced he dropped the hurley for one of them while Shane Kingston had a similar chance for Cork that was deflected over. When the goal did come, it was a terrible blow, just on half-time after a foul on Daniel Kearney.
Cork had played most of the hurling, yet trailed at the break.
But they played a fantastic twenty-seven minutes after half-time. They did so much well in that period. Lehane found his form, the ball was sticking in the forward line much better and the Cork defence was forcing turnovers. They were doing all the things that you need to do to get over the line.
Even when Cork initially went six up, Limerick quickly brought it back to four but the way Luke Meade and Darragh Fitzgibbon secured the next two points to bring the tally to 1-26 left most of us feeling that it would be our day. I turned to my friend and said that if Cork get to 1-27/1-28 they wouldn’t be beaten, and that it was highly likely that they’d get there before Limerick, once they didn’t concede a goal.
They didn’t concede a goal. But they just couldn’t get that one more score that they needed to get over the line.
Seven in a row from Limerick. Four from frees, while Cork missed their three good chances of getting that one more score that they needed. Unfortunately, Hoggie’s equalising free just delayed the pain a bit longer.
What went wrong?
Lots of small things. As much as anything, Cork lost the wrong players to mixtures of injuries and exhaustion. Séamus Harnedy, who was heroic throughout, got that bad knock after twenty-two minutes, and while he continued to contribute, it just knocked that bit out of him.
Meade and Kearney, in particular, just ran out of gas. Even in extra-time it was Fitzgibbon who Cork lost. They’d given so much and really Cork should have been more ahead to reflect their mammoth contributions. Maybe Eoin Cadogan had enough done after fifty minutes.
When Limerick got on that roll, all Cork needed was one little break to stop it. There were two or three moments when you were convinced that cathartic score was on its way.
When Hoggie swiveled, as he does so well, and took that shot under the Cusack stand we all expected the white flag. But the post intervened. And, of all people, it was Mark Ellis who had followed it in. Had he checked his run he’d have had a tap in-goal. But he’s not a forward. Timmy O’Mahony took a long-range shot when a ball in to Harnedy, who was one-on-one, might have been the percentage call. There could have been a free.
Then Robbie O’Flynn cut through. He might have taken a point but the ball to Harnedy was decent. A fully fit Harnedy might have taken that extra step, but Nicky Quaid had one of those moments that make you think that some things are decided on a higher plane.
Maybe Cork just switched off. When Fitzgibbon got his last point he jumped into Richie English in a way that you don’t really want to see and in a way suggested he thought it was over. A few puck-outs went straight down the middle, some of the passes that had been crisp all day went astray, and when you switch it off you can’t switch it back on.
Limerick’s bench made a huge difference and the absence of Alan Cadogan grew from a gap to a chasm.
Maybe Limerick have benefitted from being in Division 1B where they could bed in players safe in the knowledge that they’d always make the quarter-finals, at least. Maybe, financial reasons aside, Division 1A isn’t the be all and end all. Maybe Limerick are reaping the benefit of the work they’ve put in at underage level.
Maybe, in the cold light of day, Cork are still a few players short.
This is why next Saturday night in Nowlan Park is so important. Cork need something tangible to reflect the improvements that have been made.
Because, two years ago, Cork were a shambles. The improvement that has happened in that intervening period is phenomenal. We should be grateful to all players and management for what they have done to restore pride in Cork hurling.
Days like yesterday can make people angry, sad, despondent and, on occasion, irrational.
Last December, on a bitterly cold Monday evening, I was in Riverstown after a school training session. All I wanted to do was go home and sit by the fire. The Cork kit-van was parked by the dressing-rooms and I saw Séamus Harnedy and Lorcán McLoughlin drive through the gates, a good hour before training was to start.
These players and mentors give an awful lot of themselves and they respect the jersey unfailingly. Nobody can be hurting more than they are today. The least they deserve is a modicum of respect and thanks for the summer they have given us.
They’ll come back better and stronger because they have to. Of course, so will Tipperary and Kilkenny and all of the rest of them.
But that is a challenge that has to be relished, not feared.
Until then, all there is to do is regret. It will make the rejoicing all the more meaningful when the time comes.