While we might have hoped against hope that it wouldn’t be so, it was always going to be thus, wasn’t it? Saturday evening saw a decade of unparalleled mediocrity in Cork hurling end in the only way it could have; crushing disappointment.
While the defeat in itself wasn’t too much of a surprise, the nature of it was. Between minor and U-20 over the past two years, these Cork and Tipp teams had been all but inseparable. One win apiece and one draw left us all thinking that the rubber match would go the same way.
And to be fair, it did – for the first three minutes. After the concession of yet another shockingly soft goal, Cork recovered well and seemed to have settled down before being blitzed for three more to leave the game all but over after seven minutes. It was grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. And totally reflective of the decade that was.
Cork didn’t seem to be themselves from the very beginning. Their touch was off, they dropped balls they’d catch in their sleep, they seemed lethargic, nervous, unsure of themselves and were bereft of cohesion. Maybe the occasion and the pressure of Cork’s desperate need for any kind of All-Ireland success got to them.
Just like in the Munster final they seemed to go man for man at the back, with everybody given a specific forward to detail. It’s always a risky tactic as you’re pretty much hoping that all of your backs get the upper hand and you leave yourself wide open in the event of an individual error. You’re constantly living on the edge, constantly relying on defensive infallibility.
It worked to some extent in the Munster final, even though Tipp could have had more goals. On Saturday it was brutally exposed. As much as anything else, Cork were completely lacking in defensive shape. When the man-on-man tactic doesn’t work you’re always on the backfoot, always firefighting, always reacting to the opposition instead of playing the game on your own terms. You’re dragged all over the place and you can’t establish a platform for attack.
It meant Conor O’Callaghan, an excellent corner-back, played at centre-back for most of the game and it often meant that two of Cork’s best half-backs, Seán O’Leary-Hayes and Ger Millerick, played in the full-back line from where they were unable to influence proceedings.
In contrast, Tipperary held their defensive shape and got the balance right between trying to limit the impact of Cork’s key attackers while also backing themselves and concentrating on their own game.
From Cork’s perspective, maybe a sweeper might have helped stop the bleeding (Daire Connery did appear to be in that role briefly after the fourth goal), but you can’t just try something you’ve never done before in an All-Ireland final. Maybe, if Cork had tried to secure their half-back line, they might have been able to claw their way back into it. But as Mike Tyson famously told us “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” and after those early hammer blows, Cork’s race was run.
It can all be discussed ad nauseum but the reality is that, Tipp were quicker, harder, hungrier, meaner and just better, with their interplay and support play in particular serving as a sharp contrast to Cork’s reliance on individuality.
Where does it leave us?
Well, it was and is very hard not to feel desperately sorry for the players. We see them play their games every now and again, but what they put in to get to Saturday happens so far off Broadway that we’ve no real idea what they’ve given. I’d imagine no Cork U-20/U-21 team has ever trained as much or put as much in. For many of them, it was the culmination of six years of hard work and dreaming. For that journey to end with them not giving a true account of themselves must be heart-breaking.
As Cork fans, we’re also far too bound up in the successes and failures of this team and their immediate predecessors. Why? Because we’re desperate. Absolutely desperate for success, desperate for a sign, any sign, that things are going to be ok, that we’re on the way back. That’s why nearly 10,000 of us went to Páirc Uí Rinn to see them play Tipp two years ago when they were only minors. It’s why we’re quick to fete them and are capable of being even quicker to write them off.
It’s what fourteen years without any minor, U-21 or senior hurling All-Ireland does to you. What fourteen years of watching nearly every other county have their moment does to you. Young men, with bright futures, become more important to you than they should be as all your hopes and fears manifest themselves in their performances.
2019 has reminded us that there is still a long way to travel, and that we could still have plenty of penance to suffer before we can emerge from this protracted nightmare. But everything goes back to zero cum January, and plenty of those players involved on Saturday will be back working hard, searching and striving for atonement.