The Long, Short Winter

“Seventy-five percent of everything is in the mind. It’s the mind that counts.” Christy Ring

It all seemed to be going so well.

If you were told on Friday last that John McGrath wouldn’t see half-time, that Noel McGrath wouldn’t see full-time, that Bubbles O’Dwyer wouldn’t see any game-time at all, that Séamus Callanan would only score two points, that Cork would be only two points down at half-time after playing into the teeth of a gale and a sheeting of November rain, that Patrick Horgan would score another memorable goal and that Tipperary would shoot eighteen wides, you would have been reasonably confident that they would have won and that we would be looking forward to an All-Ireland quarter-final this weekend.

But they didn’t; and we aren’t.

In the end, it was the same old failings that haunted Cork; an over-reliance on Patrick Horgan and Séamus Harnedy up top coupled with a chronic inability to keep the score down that saw Tipp plunder 2-9, mostly from play, while facing into the elements.

Briefly, Harnedy looked like he was going to win the game on his own, but Tipp acted decisively, sticking Pádraic Maher on him, and just like that, it was all over.

Ultimately, Cork reaped what they sowed and have paid the price for their non-performance against Waterford. It was a gilt-edged opportunity to reach a Munster final, ensure an extra week of preparation before taking a free shot at Limerick and then, at worst, re-grouping for a quarter final.

The truth is that there was an unendurable, appalling inevitability to events as they unfolded on Saturday evening, and the dark, miserable, rancid cloud that stalks Cork hurling shows absolutely no sign of lifting.

Over the past fifteen years, at all levels, Cork has lost the ability to win big, knock-out games against the big teams. Since 2009, they’ve only managed three wins against Offaly and Dublin, two against Wexford and one each against Waterford, Clare, Kilkenny, Laois, Antrim and Westmeath.

The Kilkenny game was a memorable day in Thurles but everything that has happened since to all of Cork, Dublin and Clare has proved that 2013 was a wonderfully painful anomaly. Indeed, the fact that the only major force that Cork have been able to consistently beat since then is Clare only exacerbates the excruciating memory of it.

Those underwhelming highs have been punctuated by four defeats to Galway (three of them embarrassing), two to Tipp and Kilkenny, one to Clare and Wexford and the two recent semi-final losses to Limerick and Waterford that really should have been won.

For some reason, Saturday felt worse than some of those darker days, probably because the hope of 2017 and 2018 is beginning to morph, horribly, into another false dawn. It’s just hard to see an immediate way out of it.

Of course there are major caveats to everything that happens this year, obviously we can’t judge things in a normal way and clearly we should all have a bit of perspective, but as Larry Ryan gently reminded us, perspective is soon sent packing when things don’t go as well as you had hoped they would.

As we face in to this long, brief winter, what can we realistically expect to change?

In the past, Cork hurling, mainly due to the sheer number of players available, a sense of competitive urgency and an innate sense of superiority, has been able to re-generate itself quickly. In Denis Walsh’s essential Hurling: The Revolution Years, the thing that stands out most about the emergence of Clare and Wexford is that during the mid 1990’s they prepared better than Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny did.

When the old firm finally matched, and then exceeded those preparations, normal service, for the most part, was resumed. Initially, the 1990’s seemed destined to be a barren decade for Cork. But minor titles in 1995 and 1998 supplemented by U-21 titles in 1997 and 1998 soon paved the way for a return to the top table in 1999 as JBM put his faith in a youth that was unburdened by loss, and unperturbed by anybody. It meant that as one millennium gave way to another, Cork hurling was in a good place.

For the most part, change was embraced as not to do so was a one-way ticket to Palookaville. Cork then became the innovators from 2003 to 2006. Preparation modernised further and possession became treasured, as Bernie O’Connor’s gospel, that was once anathema to most (and probably still is to some) spread beyond Newtownshandrum and changed things completely.

Then it was Kilkenny’s turn to change the rules of engagement. As pointed out by Enda McAvoy in the Irish Examiner recently, the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final between Cork and Kilkenny was a seminal moment in hurling. Cork lived with them for twenty minutes, but in the end they were overwhelmed by a new type of hurling, much like Cork did onto Kilkenny in 2004.

A lot has happened since 2008, and a most of it should be left there, but for multiple reasons, Cork still haven’t caught up. They no longer innovate. They no longer lead. They don’t even follow, really. They’re still bringing the same knife to a completely different gunfight and too often in the time since they have been out-thought, out-fought and out-hurled.  

There are many names for the main pillar of the new game. It has been called ‘Savage hunger’ (© Larry Ryan), ‘intensity’, ‘manic-work-rate’ while ‘savagery’ is its most recent manifestation and it’s surely only matter of time before it all gives way to ‘murder’.

Tackling is an essential part of this ‘savagery’, and Cork are not at the races when it comes to this fundamental aspect of the game; more specifically, the Cork forwards aren’t. Too often, the ball comes out too easy. Tackling isn’t simple, but anybody can do it if they are shown how to do so and are willing to do so.

Without this essential skill, and until it’s valued at least as much as your silkiest touch, you’re going nowhere in the modern game.

Fifteen years on form our last All-Ireland at any level, thirty years on from the Double and 100 years on from the birth of Ring and the Burning of Cork, it’s hard to know what Cork hurling means. We’re like Tipp in the 1970’s and ‘80’s; stuck in the limbo of harking for a return of the old days and hoping that the old methods will once again bare fruit.

There isn’t much time for Kieran Kingston and his management team to re-calibrate for 2021 and they have a lot of big calls to make over the next few weeks. Much like JBM in 1999, Kingston had the courage to blood a lot of young players in his first stint in charge.

He will need to do so again as Cork can no longer look back as they try to move forward. There is no point in trusting in methods that have continuously been found wanting

2020 has yielded another fruitless harvest and it ensures that our longest famine – from 1903 to 1919 – will at best be matched next year. Time can pass us by all too quickly and, without a bit of radicalism, a lot of anger and a dose of madness, we will soon find ourselves meandering aimlessly through another winter of discontent.

By John Coleman

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