The last time he came to town, Liam Sheedy knew what he had. Or at least he thought he did. Two years into his tenure, he’d mopped up the mess left by Babs and his team was steadily evolving. A league title in 2008 followed by back-to-back Munster titles was proof of this progress.
Of course, there was Kilkenny. However, that particular problem seemed unsolvable at the time. But he’d have seen enough in the All-Ireland final defeat of 2009 to embolden him. They’d come closer than anyone to solving the cat-conundrum and may even have claimed that most desperate of victories in the aftermath; a moral one.
So, when Tipp landed in the old Páirc for a Munster quarter-final against the old enemy, the narrative would have suggested that it was the first stepping-stone to catharsis.
Being truthful, apart from the fact that they were Cork, there was little about Cork that would have had many people arguing with the perceived narrative. Yes, they’d reached a league final, Aisake Ó hAilpín had shown that he may give Pádraic Maher a headache or two and Cork had made some progress since Denis Walsh had taken the helm after the third, and final, strike.
But nothing in their form, including their meek performance in the league final defeat by Galway, suggested that Cork were ready to reach the unrelenting ferocity that Kilkenny and Tipp had shown in the 2009 decider. The era of total war had begun, and Cork’s hunger would take a while yet to reach the ‘savage’ level, if indeed they’ve ever reached it at all.
But for 70 minutes at home, they found something within themselves. A rage, a hurt, a fear and the narrative was ripped apart as Ó hAilpín and Patrick Horgan caused havoc, the old guard gave it one last tango in the Páirc and Cork celebrated a sweet victory.
There was a giddiness about the walk back into town that day as people lingered around for longer than they should have on a Sunday night, waiting for the Sunday Game. When it did come on, every score was cheered again in the Ovens Tavern while the hushing that accompanied the interviews and analysis would make Thomond Park look lax when it comes to noise disturbances.
As for the post-mortem? There’s no doubt that in Tipp it would have had its usual level of viciousness. It might even have been unusually vicious. The Cork psyche would have received a much un-needed confidence boost, perhaps even an unusual one (“Cork re-emerged as a hurling powerhouse” according to GAA.ie.)
As ever, both reactions were wrong. Too wrought up in the power of emotion rather than cold hard facts. History proved the narrative correct. Tipp just took a longer road to an even sweeter catharsis while Cork stuttered their way to an All-Ireland semi-final where they saw how far off it they really were.
So as Liam Sheedy gears up for his second coming, what’s changed, apart from the stadium?
There’s a comforting core of survivors for Tipp from 2010. Pádraic Maher, Brendan Maher, Noel McGrath and Séamus Callanan are as central to the cause now as they were then. Callanan is even more vital than he was as he’s filled the significant void of Eoin Kelly. Michael Cahill is still around too while Bonnar Maher made his debut later that summer against Wexford.
Of that sextet only McGrath is still in his twenties but all six have gone deep into the summer every year since, bar last year. And even then, they played four games. But just the one more All-Ireland has been added despite all the brilliant hurling they’ve played. That’s why he’s back.
For Cork, Only Patrick Horgan and Eoin Cadogan survive. Horgan has been as constant and consistent as the Northern Star ever since but the only major that counts still eludes him. Cadogan’s case is the most interesting of all. Like his counterparts from Tipp, he ended 2010 on the steps of the Hogan Stand as the Cork footballers finally got what they deserved against Down.
You’d wonder what his reaction would have been if you’d told him that in the moments after the defeat of Tipp. But the fact remains, he’s the only Cork player who knows what it’s like to win an All-Ireland.
Whatever about on the pitch, the changes off the pitch are by far the most significant thing for Liam Sheedy this weekend. Everything has gone up a notch or two; the preparation, the dedication, the analysis, the pace and most importantly, the stakes.
The defeat in 2010 may have seemed and felt cataclysmic at the time, but it wasn’t. There was a soft landing and a chance to re-build morale and momentum. Wexford and Offaly helped them get going again, Galway made them believe again before revenge against Waterford and Kilkenny made it an annus mirabilis.
This time around, there’s no chance of a soft landing. Win or lose, there’s no chance to sit back, take stock and catch your breath. There’s no chance to enjoy the victory or dwell on the defeat. It’s a relentless and unforgiving rollercoaster that will chew you up and spit you out before you’ve even realised what’s happening.
Just like 2010, a defeat for Cork or Tipp this Sunday won’t be catastrophic. However, chances are that, in time, it might be terminal.