“Don’t you ever call me a bully…I’m so much worse than that.”
Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It
It’s been a predictable enough start to the year; the footballers struggling desperately to survive, the hurlers putting up big scores without being entirely convincing while the shadow of Páirc Uí Chaoimh still looms large over the future of Cork GAA.
It must be a source of frustration for Kevin O’Donovan that much of the fundamental and successful change that he has implemented in Cork GAA since his appointment can occasionally get lost in the gloom cast by the behemoth in Ballintemple.
The county championships have been reinvigorated and are unrecognisable in comparison to the bloated, meandering competitions of old. The group system has guaranteed regular, meaningful matches ran on a predictable schedule. Nothing revolutionary in that, obviously, yet the beautiful simplicity of the idea, coupled with the split season, has transformed the club scene. One look at the groups for this year’s championships confirms that they will be the most competitive yet, though the squeeze on the dual player continues to tighten.
The Rebel’s Bounty Draw has also been a massive success. Once clubs recognised its potential as a long-term predictable income stream, the idea took off. What was most impressive about both of these developments was how they were sold to the clubs as a whole. There were meetings, there was engagement, debate, argument, and an openness that lies in stark contrast to the days of yore.
That openness is further exemplified by the streaming of matches in conjunction with The Irish Examiner and even the live streaming of the county championship draws a few weeks back in which O’Donovan was posed some difficult questions by Colm O’Connor. We mightn’t have liked the answers, but there was no shirking from the issues.
On the field there has been considerable underage success. Two U-20 hurling All-Irelands and one All Ireland U-20 football title along with All-Ireland success at minor level in both codes.
But it’s the senior teams that will always be the ultimate barometer for the greater public. Underage success is welcome, particularly after over a decade of irrelevance, but there’s a growing impatience for greater glory.
That impatience hasn’t been helped by the much-publicised consequences of the Ed Sheeran concerts as realpolitik once again bludgeoned its way to the centre of the stage, and shuffled the hurlers, footballers and fans from it . The feel-good factor that accompanied Sheeran’s last appearance down the Páirc has long since dissipated, particularly among Premium level ticket holders, while the witty declarations that we had, in fact, four home games in 2018 (two in Cork, two in Thurles) have been replaced by an aching anxiety about whether or not we’ll be able to get out of the group.
The draw with Limerick at home back in 2018 seems like a lifetime ago as the hurling world has changed utterly since. The terrible beauty of the men from the Treaty City has haunted Cork hurling ever since, firstly through the kaleidoscopic defeat in the 2018 semi-final and then through the hellish decimation of last August.
Against Clare three weeks ago, Cork, as usual, frustrated and delighted in equal measure. There was a slow start while playing with a gale, a devastating 30-odd minute period where they could do no wrong and a fade out that left a bad taste in the mouth. Clare was only a shadow of the team that we’ll meet in Thurles on the ides of May, but they still registered an eye-watering 2-21.
It laid bare that long term concern about the defence, not in terms of individual talent, but in terms of collective meanness, from front to back. Only those close to the camp know how annoyed they were by the fade out, but the lesson remains clear, Cork have to find a way to close out games in a very boring manner. It’s imperative that they find a way to slow it down, to shut up shop, to frustrate and to suck the life out of a game, when necessary.
There were no lessons to take from the trip to Birr, though when Offaly finished the first half with eight points, I did turn to my brother and father and say that it would be nice to keep their tally to 0-15 or so. They were a tuft of grass away from doing that but in reality, Cork’s league campaign begins on Sunday when they get into the thick of it in Limerick.
There have been plenty of positives about the opening two games, namely the return to form of Darragh Fitzgibbon, the exciting glimpse of Ciarán Joyce’s potential and the emerging depth of the panel. All of these will be tested all the more in the final three games of the league, and all three encounters are served by interesting subplots.
Limerick are, of course, Limerick, Cork’s last trip to Wexford Park highlighted all of Cork’s long-term issues when it comes to ‘savagery’ while last year’s game against Galway saw a genuine chance to win a league title disappear down the stretch.
Three wins from three is unlikely, but it’s the performances that really matter, and the main focus of attention will be how Cork will fare when the blade is inevitably lowered.
The footballers are in the thick of something entirely different that we’ll return to on another day, but they’re in a similar position to the hurlers in that their last three games will ultimately define where they’re at. Tomorrow’s game at home to Galway is a difficult interlude before the end game, but Cork really needs to get all of their pieces on the board.