In 1996, Cork hurling’s summer was cut short before it ever got a chance to begin. It wasn’t an anomaly either. In 1993 and ’95, Clare had pipped Cork in the graveyard that was the old Gaelic Grounds while in 1994, Limerick did the same.
Cork were very much an empire in decline, living off the fame from past glories while being overtaken by a revolution that they, at best, never countenanced possible or at worst, just chose to ignore. Sound familiar?
Then, in May of ’96 a Limerick team hardened by their loss to Offaly in ’94 came to Páirc Uí Chaoimh and decimated Cork by 3-18 to 1-8. The feel-good factor of Jimmy Barry Murphy taking over the reins, and of the minors winning the All-Ireland of 1995 were obliterated as Cork reached both the apex of an existential crisis and the bottom of the pit of despair.
However, in July, something began to stir.
On a beautiful summer’s evening Cork played Tipp in the Munster U-21 hurling semi-final down the Páirc. And beat them, handsomely, by 2-18 to 1-12.
I stood on the Blackrock End that evening, just as I would a month later when Oasis came to town, and I remember the joy at seeing a Cork team win well. Because, although I had the privilege of being in Croker in 1990, things are different when you’re an adolescent. It means more because you’re more obsessive, more vulnerable, more hormonal.
Anybody else who was there might remember the performance of Alan Cummins from centre-forward, or the dominance of Kevin Egan at centre-back, the flair of Seánie McGrath at wing-forward or even the grace of Johnny Sheehan at midfield. That night, in my recollection, those young men looked like certainties for the inevitable glory that was to come.
They went on to beat Clare comfortably in the final and although they lost to Galway afterwards, there was more to come.
There was that Timmy McCarthy moment the following year when his late goal beat Tipp on the night and even in the future as some of their outrageous talent seemed to drain away all too quickly. All-Ireland glory followed this time and the seniors seemed to be making progress too.
That is, until Clare rolled over them in that absurd summer of ’98. On the Wednesday after that set-back, my father was, strangely, lacking in motivation. However, my brother convinced him to travel to Thurles for the U-21 game against Clare where a helmetless Joe Deane found catharsis in a rout that was a route to another All-Ireland.
The same year the minors took another brick out of the dam, beating Kilkenny handily in the final. In 2000 the minors reached another final, in 2001 they beat Galway in the final and after that there was…..nothing.
Within all of that run, however, there was the foundations for the All-Ireland titles of ’99, 2004 and 2005 that have, scandalously, only served as a bridge from one existential crisis to another because of circumstances that, at best, were never countenanced or at worst, just ignored.
We haven’t quite traversed that bridge yet, but the events of the past few weeks have certainly made it feel like that it doesn’t continue to ad finitum.
There was the memorable U20 win against Dublin, the minor’s victory over Clare, the U20 footballers taking care of business against Kerry and Tipperary and the U20s hurlers beating Tipp after overcoming substantial half-time deficit.
There were many things to admire about the way all of those teams played, but it was the relentlessness of their efforts that stood out the most. They were loaded with traits that the evolution of Cork had seemed to deem unnecessary. I don’t even have to name them because we all know what they are.
One of the most pertinent ramifications of our current famine is the pressure it creates on our younger players. Our desperation to feel the wind of change has resulted in a chronic need to see a great team come through. Every night we spend glued to TG4 is laced with an unhealthy amount of anxiety and yearning.
However, it’s never one team that changes things, it’s a string of them. Obviously, there may be the occasional exception to the rule, but every golden generation still needs to be supplemented by the more ordinary ones.
And for every Seánie McGrath there will be two or three Kevin Egans; outrageous potential paused in time.
As Éamonn Murphy pointed out, Cork is now in its fifth Munster U-21/20 hurling final in-a-row. They’ve also played in three of the last four All-Ireland finals. There was the U-17 win, the 2018 loss in the minor final. A couple of more majors wouldn’t go astray but the wheels are turning. Not as quickly as we would like them too, but they are turning and churning.
The loss to Limerick suddenly seems like a long time ago. The luck of the draw coupled with the thrill of all of the aforementioned little victories has meant that Saturday’s game against Clare has ebbed in almost un-noticed.
As I said before the Limerick game, nothing has really changed. Cork are, for all their strengths, faults and failings, Cork.
Saturday is a massive game for a team that desperately needs a big championship win to give them something concrete to build their confidence on. Clare has, apart from the only one that mattered, been most generous opponents over the past few seasons.
This one really matters, because whoever is l ft standing on Saturday evening has a real chance of prolonging their summer even further in a championship that will reward momentum.