As a younger man, I regularly suffered from bouts of sleep paralysis. It is a state between sleep and wakefulness where you are aware of your existence but are completely unable to move any of your limbs. The more you tried, the more aware you were of your inability to move and the more frightened you became. As I grew older, I recognised when it was happening, but that knowledge was never enough to ease the terror of that feeling when the sweet dream became a chilling nightmare.
It hasn’t happened me for years but driving home from Dublin last Sunday its shadow returned to my consciousness. It was, and is, the best metaphor I can think of for what happened to Cork in Croke Park. There’s a famous painting by Henry Fuseli called The Nightmare that depicts the feeling. In it, a monstrous demon has planted himself on the body of a woman, demobilising her as she sleeps. It’s as if he’s suffocating her, just as Limerick did to Cork.
It will take the winter to fully make sense of events in Croker last weekend, but there’s no doubt that what happened was a perfect rancid mix of sorcery that created a nightmare that will fade over time but will never really go away. On the eve of the final, there was always the lingering possibility that what actually happened could happen. However, that’s the time for hope so such feelings of trepidation were buried as we all tried plot the path to victory.
The main problem that Cork faced was, obviously, Limerick’s brilliance. They were awesome in every facet of the game and congratulations to them. They played like a team who had been together for five years; in perfect harmony with one another as every part of the team knew what the other was doing instinctively. They just made it look so easy, so natural.
Back in 2017 when they lost to Kilkenny in Nolan Park, John Kiely cut a strange figure when he was interviewed after the game. It was a game that they could have won but there was an intensity to his words in the aftermath that implied that he was either a man on the edge of departure or on the edge of a breakthrough. Unfortunately, for all of us, it was the latter.
The best example of Limerick’s brilliance that I can remember from Sunday is their attitude to their own puckouts. They were quick, accurate and devastating. Cork scores and wides were acts of provocation, not times to re-set and re-group, but opportunities for redemption.
As soon as the ball went dead, Byrnes, Hayes and Hannon came alive and acted like wide receivers and tight ends for Nicky Quaid as Limerick’s quick re-starts overwhelmed a Cork side that were playing by the old rules; treating a break in play as an opportunity for relief as a opposed to an opportunity to attack.
Cork’s puckouts, if you allow me to continue with the American Football comparison, often ended up in deep coverage while long shots were hoovered up by a Limerick defence that were all to aware of what Cork were endeavouring to do.
If Limerick’s brilliance was the chief cause of Cork’s demise, what were the other elements? Well, I think the occasion played its part. Cork seemed lost in it from the start as they appeared leaden footed while their touch was off.
From the beginning their opponents acted while Cork reacted and found themselves continuously on the ropes taking heavy, unsustainable punishment. A knock on effect of this is that Cork seemed far too individualistic in their play. Winning your patch alone is never going to be enough at this level of hurling. As they struggled to survive, they forgot about what had made the previous month so successful.
There were also tactical failures, chief of which was the lack of a plan for Cian Lynch and the rest of the Limerick half-forward line. The loss of Ger Millerick was a blow in this regard, as Brian McDonnell’s fantastic forensic analysis of Lynch’s summer shows, but whatever plan was in place as a replacement never got off the ground.
The Cork half back-line played far too far from their own goal, leaving the full-back line brutally exposed. This was compounded by Limerick’s quick puck-outs and Cork’s lack of pressure on the ball coming out which meant Gillane, Flanagan and Casey were getting the ball right where they wanted it.
All of that goes someway to explaining how Cork managed to concede 3-18 in a half of hurling. Cork needed to stay in the game for as long as possible to have a chance, but they hamstrung themselves from the very beginning. What happened after was irrelevant as the euphoria of the previous fortnight gave way to a numbing reality check.
There’s not much else to say, really. Cork made great progress this year but in the final they saw the standard that they need to eclipse if they are to finally end this famine which is now the longest that we have ever seen.
The nature of the success at minor and U20 level bodes well for the future, but there’s also many a slip twixt a cup and lip. Next year will come around, however, and that gives us the opportunity to dream again. The hurling world is very much in flux with Kilkenny, Galway, Tipperary and Wexford in transition and Clare uncertain. Waterford are on an upward curve and Cork are improving.
The problem is, however, that Limerick have redefined what they are. That they were able to do so just shows what can be done.
They loom large over 2022, but there they can wait. Now’s the time for local affairs.