“You’ve won it once. Now you’ll have to go out there and win it again.”
Alf Ramsey, England manager, 1966.
The hay wasn’t saved on the M7 on Saturday, and Cork aren’t bet, yet.
And it’s hard to describe the return of that feeling of utter elation and jubilation that jingle jangled along the banks of the Royal Canal yesterday after Cork’s most satisfying victory since 2013 and most impressive performance since 2006.
Brendan Behan wrote that “at the innermost core of all loneliness is a deep and powerful yearning for union with one’s lost self.”
That’s what this last decade has been like from a Cork hurling perspective. Lonely and empty. Perennially on the outside looking in, lost in dreams of what once was ours.
Of course, Cork won nothing tangible on Sunday. There is, after all, a much bigger and badder day to come. But what they did do was put in a performance that finally connected our present to our past while also laying another layer of granite into our foundation.
To see kids, teenagers, and young adults revel in a victory the like of which they had never before experienced was incredibly satisfying. It’s still so hard to fathom all of what those generations have been denied, but maybe now they will start believing all of those stories that they were reared on.
Limerick will obviously relish their chance to puncture our bubble, but that’s for the future. For the now, we’re entitled to briefly revel in the present.
However, the chill of the August wind that swirled through Croke Park at around 16:45 felt an awful lot like the ghost of Christmas past. Six points up in an All-Ireland semi-final, looking comfortable yet perhaps needing one more score to make sure.
The wave upon wave of attacks that had put Cork in that position was a phantasmagoria of everything that has made Cork what it is. Passion, skill, speed, steel, aggression, and calmness in the pressure cooker of Croker.
Those waves had answered so many of the question that have dogged them over the years. Questions about their character, their stomach for the fight, their consistency, questions about their relevance at this level of hurling.
The narrative before the game was that in Kilkenny, Cork was about to face a whirlwind like they had never seen before. They were going to be savaged, hunted, and hounded. One analyst compared their relentlessness to a punch in the face.
The same analyst kept referring to Jack O’Connor as ‘Jack Coughlan’ and ‘Jack Corcoran’. He might remember his name now.
Kilkenny performed as they always did, however, ignoring the slightly insulting interpretation of their endeavours and had the better of the first half. Crucially though, they left a few after them and a combination of good defending from Darragh Fitzgibbon and Mark Coleman and good goalkeeping from Patrick Collins made sure that they never got too far ahead.
The biggest margin that they created was four points, and the brilliance of Patrick Horgan papered over the jitters of some of Cork’s early play. And then they pushed on and found a bit of a rhythm.
The consensus in the lower Davin at half-time was that a one-point deficit was both reasonably fortunate and overturnable. But when Kilkenny stretched it out to four points again after the break, one feared that Cork might be beginning to creak.
Then came the waves. Timmy O’Mahony chipped a lineball into Robbie O’Flynn’s hand, he split the posts, and Cork came alive.
Shane Kingston was everywhere, Jack O’Connor ignited, Seamus Harnedy endeavoured while Downey, O’Leary and O’Donoghue devoured all that came their way. Conor Cahalane and Luke Meade took over at midfield, O’Flynn enjoyed his finest hour in a Cork jersey, Alan Cadogan re-discovered his form as Kilkenny abandoned their best laid plans and just went long in an effort to utilise their apparent aerial superiority.
Cork, who would have been relying on majors before the game to get them over the line, had hit 0-28, an eerily similar total to 2018, and looked to be on their way to a first All-Ireland final since 2013.
Still though, one more point would have been nice as Kilkenny were sure to rage to the very end.
Just like in 2018, there were chances to make sure. Patrick Horgan even missed one from the exact same spot that he hit the post from three years ago. But when O’Connor landed one from distance, three points seemed to be enough, especially as Timmy O’Mahony powered out of defence with time all but up.
As the Rolling Stones taught us, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might just find you get what you need.
Once the shock of Adrian Mullen’s bullet dissipated, there came an important realisation. This wasn’t 2018. Cork wasn’t out on their feet. Cork had a bench, had legs, and had full belief in everything that they were doing. They hadn’t run out of petrol; they’d just taken their foot off the accelerator. They’d won it once, they just had to do it again.
Extra-time wasn’t what you would have wished for with ten minutes to go, but when Jack O’Connor finally rattled the net, it all felt alright. What’s that one about living life forward but only understanding it backwards?
My personal highlight from extra-time was Mark Coleman’s penultimate major act of the game as he stopped the mighty Walter Walsh with a shoulder. It was Coleman’s finest display in a couple of years as Cork’s man-marking of TJ Reid allowed him to dominate the game more from the wing and perhaps nobody exemplified the new Cork more than the Blarney man.
There was no rush for the exits when Fergal Horgan called an end to the mayhem; this was one to be savoured.
As our car trundled home, we pondered what made this win different from the brilliant Munster victories of 2014, 2017 and 2018?
The fact that it was knock-out. The fact that it was Kilkenny. The fact that we’re a step closer to catharsis. The fact that we’re reigning All-Ireland U20 champions and are in another final. The fact that the minors are in a Munster final tonight. We’re not looking at a field anymore hoping for a few mushrooms to pop up – this is different.
At all grades Cork had forgotten how to win close games. Now, they’re remembering. Much like the U20s, who have left a few games turn out to be a bit closer than they should have been, the seniors just desperately needed to win a game like this to bring them up to the next level.
Sport, however, can be the cruellest mistress of them all. The euphoria of yesterday could very well be short lived when you look at who’s coming to dinner on Sunday week.
As the Galtees slipped into the rear-view mirror, our thoughts had already turned to Limerick and what the context of this great victory would be once the nights begin to close in.
There’s trepidation there, but there’s also a burning desire to find out.