It was always going to come down to Ennis, wasn’t it?
In many ways, Cork’s rivalry with Clare has come to define this decade of Cork hurling. That panging feeling of regret, despair and injustice that surrounds the 2013 All-Ireland finals has never really gone away; an eternal hangover.
Brian Gavin’s assumption from the pitch to the print-media is a constant reminder of what might have been. And this week, of all weeks, began with him lamenting Colm Lyons’ faux-pas with regard to time-keeping in the Galway/Kilkenny game. Oh, the irony. Oh, the horror, the horror.
As it stands, this decade’s rivalry has been a fair reflection of the history of the contest. Of the seven championship meetings this decade, Cork have won five. The aforementioned finals of 2013 make up the other two; a draw and a defeat. Historically, apart from the mid-90’s, when Clare went four-for-four, it’s always been a case of occasional Clare victories scattered among Cork dominance.
This decade’s championships has brought them to Thurles, the Gaelic Grounds, Croke Park, Páirc Uí Chaoimh and now, for the first time ever, Cusack Park in Ennis . It is a strange place, Cusack Park.
There’s a mythology around the place at this stage that skirts the line between legend and history. It’s Gibraltar, Stalingrad, Troy and Thermopylae rolled into one. A place where heroes become legends, legends become gods and visitors look at the Christians in the Colosseum with envy.
It’s also a paradoxical place in that the pitch, because of the nature of the terraces, seems tight and compact while in fact being wide and open. And, all jokes aside, it’s a place where things can become very uncomfortable very quickly.
Most of my memories of Cusack Park revolve around football. In 1993 Cork traveled to Ennis to play the reigning Munster champions. I remember arriving early to get a place on the northern terrace, being cold, worried and small while witnessing for the first time the feral nature of a provincial venue. Colin Corkery made everything worthwhile, however, and I left thinking that Ennis was just another place.
Then came 1997. Again, just as Corkery defined ’93, one man was to do the same in ’97. Martin Daly. The late, late goal to give Larry Tompkins the worst possible start as manager.
Another day that stands out there has nothing to do with Clare at all. In 2011, a year after winning the All-Ireland senior title, the Cork U-21 footballers annihilated Kerry in Páirc Uí Rinn by 2-24 to 0-9. The gates were locked to make them watch and Cork genuinely seemed set to change the narrative in relation to that particular rivalry.
Buoyed by the energy of that victory, my father, friend and I took off to Ennis for the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway. Inevitably, Cork lost and, as ever, nothing changed.
On the hurling front, only one game really stands out. Optimism was at the heart of the journey as a ferry from Tarbert to Kilrush for a day out around Loop Head ended in Ennis for the 2014 Munster U-21 final between Cork and Clare. A daring semi-final win with fourteen men in Waterford fueled, the hope but there was no room for sentimentality on that evening as Clare eviscerated Cork by 1-28 to 1-13.
That evening, there was a real sense that Clare were ready to fully capitalise on their 2013 All-Ireland win. Of all the talent on display, it was Colm Galvin who stood out the most. He was untouchable in the middle of the field, a force of nature that looked set to haunt us and everybody else for years to come. He still might.
Apart from that, there’s only two visits for league games that stick in the memory. Last year was the proverbial game of two halves as Cork lost by four after trailing by eleven at the break. Then there was 2009, the end of the last strike with John Considine as interim manager and Cork dug out a very unlikely win.
So, for this group of Cork players, Cusack Park hasn’t been a place they’ve visited very often. Alan Cadogan is the only player starting on Sunday that played in the 2014 debacle while last year’s league loss shouldn’t have lasted too long in the memory. Nolan Park 2009 it certainly was not.
Cork are in a good place heading there tomorrow. The Tipp game is out of the system now, and even on that day they managed to put up a good score. Apart from Colm Spillane, the panel is at full strength and it’s the strongest it’s looked in a long time.
Clare are suffering. Tipperary’s defenestration of Cusack Park hurt. Last week’s collapse against Limerick hurt some more. For all the talk of 2013, only seven starters survive for Sunday’s encounter.
Yet for all that, they’ve enjoyed a slice of luck in that a win tomorrow should see them progress. If they do get what they need tomorrow the go into the All-Ireland series rejuvenated. Such is the nature of the new format.
Cork just can’t let them get what they need as for Cork, the need is greater.
Tomorrow is as close as league comes to championship. All the events of the past few weeks are irrelevant. Clare have a free shot in a one-off game, a chance to silence the doubters and re-instill the magic of their home ground. And in Conlon, Kelly and Galvin they have the type of players who can swing momentum very quickly.
There is, however, no danger of Cork being complacent. The Waterford game last year and the Tipp one this year ensure that. What they have to do on Sunday is set the tempo and make Clare chase the game. They need to expect everything because Clare will throw everything at them. They’ll do what ever it takes to survive; Cork need to be willing to do the same.
Because it’s all about survival at this stage. Getting out of Munster is all that matters, be it by hook or by crook.
Get through tomorrow and everything is still possible. After twenty minutes or so, we’ll have a good idea if they’ll do what’s necessary.