In the run up to Sunday, the year 1998 was the one that was resonating with me the most. Cork hurling, after bottoming out in 1996 when Limerick dismantled us down the Páirc, was showing signs of improvement.
1997 was a solid, if unspectacular reaction, as eventual All-Ireland champions Clare were run close, even if Cork never really looked like winning, while the All-Ireland U-21 title was secured.
In 1998 there was real progress. A league title, along with minor and U-21 All-Irelands helped soften the blow of running into a Clare team that was at the peak of their powers. A team that JBM and Dr Con memorably knew they were in trouble against once they saw them charge out of the tunnel like men possessed in Thurles in a year when the back-door was only there for the provincial finalists.
On the Wednesday after running into that indomitable Clare machine, my father, brother and I headed off to Thurles again to watch the same teams play in the Munster U-21 championship. Spirits were low after the senior game, but watching a helmetless Joe Deane et al annihilate the Bannerman reminded us that the future was bright, reminded us that things were about to change.
The hangover after the Limerick game this year was very similar to that of twenty years ago. And watching the Cork U-21s blow Wexford away the week after had a similar, cathartic, effect in that it reminded us that while 2018 was very much a case of what might have been, it also boded well for the future.
The crucial difference between 1998 and 2018, however, is that the job was finished in 1998. Comprehensively.
Cork really needed to win on Sunday last. Cork really should have won on Sunday last. But they didn’t. It was like losing the minor final last year. Both were occasions where very talented Cork teams should have finished the job, but when the games were there for the taking, they couldn’t push on and take them.
More than anything else, Conor Stakelum’s late goal ended up reeking of 1997. A reverse Timmy Mac moment that would make you consider the role of karma in these events. But the idea that karma played its role in Limerick will do very little to lift the shadow of despair that descended on Cork hurling folk once they realised that there would be no happy ending to a year of promise. Again.
Because that’s all 2018 feels like now. A tale of lost opportunities. Limerick’s memorable and deserved All-Ireland win made the last six minutes of the semi-final clash even more pertinent. It laid bare what a glorious chance had been left behind.
An U-21 win would have softened the blow and shortened the winter. Instead all that’s left is a festering regret and an aching worry about when the next chance will present itself. Because there’s no guarantee that it will be next year.
What went wrong? Lots of things. The opening fifteen minutes of both halves especially. There are loads of things that you could point to. Tipp came out and played as if their lives depended on it. And that’s exactly what you would expect from them after the Munster final. They did exactly what you would hope Cork would do if the shoe was on the other foot.
They were ferociously committed and physical. Jake Morris’s hit on Declan Dalton, that he somehow evaded a yellow-card for, set the tone. It was one of those hits that’s probably worth the booking.
Cork were too passive and let Tipp set the tone. But once they got to grips with it, they were brilliant. The lead-up to half-time gave a glimpse of what they were capable of. It was all set-up for them to drive on in a similar vein on the re-start.
The wind was at their backs, their confidence was high, and Tipp were rattled. This was when the game should have been won. But instead, they just retreated into their shell and into their own half and it seemed as if they were playing with only four forwards at times. And the only answer was to take off two of them.
Cork worked hard and were committed and showed moments of individual brilliance but at times they looked disjointed. And Tipp had heaps of those great indeterminables; spirit and bite. There’s processes and controlling the controllables, but sometimes the fire in the belly beats the calm and composed. Cork played their best hurling after Tipp’s first two goals when they hurled with a bit of anger and the third one just came too late in the day as they realised that no business is really unfinished until you finish it yourself.
There’s a thousand other things that could be said about changes to panels and switches but none of it will change the fact that Cork haven’t won a senior, minor or U-21 All-Ireland since 2005. The longer this run continues, the harder it will be to break. There’s been some desperate games lost and plenty of last-minute heartbreak.
Are Cork in a better place than they were two years ago? Absolutely. But that’s scant consolation as the evenings close in. The new hurling world is a much more democratic place. There’s no guarantee that Cork will come out of Munster next year.
It’s why these chances just can’t be left behind anymore.