One of my most visceral memories of the 1999 All-Ireland hurling final was an early Kilkenny puck-out from James McGarry. In my recollection, it was his first one, and on that wet, dreary, and magical day he lumped at as far as he could down the middle – par for the course in the last millennium, and proof, if ever it was needed, that the past really is a different country.
You see, these were the conditions that Cork were meant to wilt in. A wet sod and a slow ball were meant to be anathema to this ‘wristy top-of-the-ground’ Cork team. Make no mistake about it, this first puck-out was meant as a statement and as I tracked the ball in the gloomy September sky from my position in the Hill, I was well aware of its significance.
Standing under McGarry’s missile were that brilliant, marauding Kilkenny centre-forward John Power, and the great Brian Corcoran. Of course, Corcoran caught it. In any regaling of this heroic tale, I maintain that Corcoran subsequently launched the ball over to the southside of the Liffey, but we all know that he topped the clearance just as we know that it was irrelevant what he did with it after he caught it.
All that mattered was that he caught it. Cork wasn’t going to be rolled over and ultimately it was Cork’s relentlessness in defence (remember that?) that gave them the chance to win. And the move of Timmy McCarthy to midfield. But I digress.
As a centre-back, Corcoran was imperious, and I often feel that he was and is tragically underrated outside of Cork. He had everything that you’d traditionally want from a centre-back and when he first retired, it was partly out of frustration with what opposing sides did to try and neutralise him.
Before Corcoran there was Jim Cashman, before Jim there was Tom and before Tom there was Johnny Crowley. After Corcoran, eventually, came Ronan Curran and once he made the number six jersey his own in 2003, happy days were here again. Since Curran stepped aside, however, Cork haven’t been able to find a centre-back. Nor have they been able to adequately fill out the positions either side of the pivotal position.
It’s a massive problem; a problem that cost us the 2013 All-Ireland and is partly responsible for the myriad of ‘Johnny Glynn’ moments that the Cork defence has suffered across the past ten years.
In Cork’s last great existential crisis in the mid-1990s our inability to produce a centre-forward in the Tim Crowley mould was much lamented and even when Fergal McCormack, Timmy McCarthy and Niall McCarthy came on the scene they weren’t fully appreciated until they had gone again.
Even now, as we face into year sixteen of this accursed famine, Cork’s lack of ball winners on the ’40 always seems to supersede our deficiencies across our own forty-five-yard line in any analysis of our seemingly terminal malaise.
In any classical GAA upbringing, Achilles was always played at number six. You always stuck your best player there to ensure that that coveted u-12 county title would be delivered. During the National League, the Cork management addressed the problem by putting their best player, Mark Coleman, there. But this is senior hurling…yadda, yadda, yadda.
In many ways, it makes perfect sense. The modern game seems to bestow the modern centre-back plenty of time and space on the ball. They are often afforded the luxury to sit back in the pocket so that they can read and dictate the play, thus launching attack after attack while supporting their fellow defenders when needs be both in a positional and physical sense.
Only last Sunday, John Conlon must have been lamenting all the years he spent getting flagellated in the half-forward line when Waterford offered him the freedom of Tom Semple’s field. Waterford themselves were missing the original new number six, Tadhg de Búrca. And coming out of the green corner on Saturday night will be Declan Hannon.
In theory, it’s the type of role that could suit Coleman down to the ground. But there’s an awful lot else that needs to go right for it to work. The supporting cast is what makes it all tick. If the other seven men of Cork’s middle eight do what they are supposed to do, then it could even work.
On Saturday evening this would mean Coleman being largely absolved of his man-marking-duties as his other seven comrades pick up the slack. And somebody else takes up residence on Cian Lynch’s hip. Unless, that is, Kyle Hayes rambles down to stand next to Coleman at the throw-in and Nicky Quaid decides to go all James McGarry.
When Cork reverted to that tactic at the end of the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final, Hannon still had the ability to go all Brian Corcoran though, and the result continues to haunt me more than any other game I can remember since I first went to see Cork play Tipp in the flesh in Limerick in 1988.
And therin lies the rub. We just don’t seem to be producing that type of player anymore. There’s certainly nobody screaming out their name on the club scene to fill the void. Castlemartyr’s Ciarán Joyce offers hope for the future, but he needs more time in the present to learn his trade.
With all of that in mind, realistically, Cork will be hoping for a lot of things to go right on Saturday night.
The league itself didn’t really teach us anything that we didn’t know already. There were signs of a more holistic approach to defending that we shouldn’t be getting overly excited about considering the fact that it should never have gone away.
Cork can put up big scores but are capable of conceding bigger ones. Plenty of players got game time but nobody new is really demanding inclusion. There is Alan Connolly – the way he was sparingly used may suggest greater plans – but despite his undoubted talent, he isn’t the answer to Cork’s fundamental problem. Problems. We struggle to win primary possession in the half-forward line and thus there is massive pressure on our puck-out and everybody knows it. Encouragingly, however, there were lots of goals.
As ever, Cork blew hot and cold as the perk of the opening two games gave way to the flaccidity of the Limerick game and the final quarter of the Galway game when the switch of Cathal Mannion into the half-forward line seemed to change the game.
The pragmatist in me keeps looking at all of the same old problems and sees that they haven’t been solved, yet, though there does seem to be an effort to do so.
With all of that said, however, league will always be league and there was plenty of evidence to back that up last weekend. The fact is, we will never know how teams approached it, which games they trained for, which games they played for, what their plans were.
Therefore, all judgement should be withheld until Saturday night. All that we can ask for is a performance and then see where that takes us. It is imperative that there is something there to build on afterwards, no matter what door we’ll end up going through.
But during these long summer evenings with nothing to do there has to be room for wild unbridled optimism too. A bias reading of the tea leaves reminds us that last time around Kieran Kingston’s second year bared no resemblance to his first. It might also prompt us to expect something new, or at least something that works, from Dónal O’Grady – surely there is more than one dimension to all of the planning?
In all championship games all you have to be is good enough on the day. With Cork’s weaknesses in mind, the Covid championship gives them their best opportunity to limit their exposure to the elements, and thus offers them their best chance of success.
They only have to be good enough for four games, eight halves or 300 minutes or so. Beat Limerick on Saturday night and somebody else might take care of them in the qualifiers.
They’re scoring goals; and goals win matches.
That is of course, until they don’t.
Corcaigh abú, go deo.