Like most people, my first introduction to inter county hurling was a league game of some sort. It’s the perfect time to introduce a young impressionable child to a world of wonder, confusion, and endless disappointment.
There are enough people there to ensure a bit of atmosphere while, for the adults in the room, the contests aren’t of enough significance to get overly annoyed when your enjoyment of the game is interrupted by the news that your child is lost and is waiting for you by the toilets on the far side of the ground.
In the twenty-first century, it’s an even more pleasant experience due to the lack of chain smoking and inebriated driving, and while my evidence is only anecdotal, kids don’t seem to get as lost as much as they used to at sporting events of middling importance. The league is the ultimate learning experience, and it has taught me a lot.
While my first memory of championship is visceral (Tipp in Limerick, 1988), all those early league games have melded into one and I find it hard to put order to them. Thus, the event that defines my early experience of the NHL is the epic Wexford trilogy of 1993.
The dread that haunted me as John O’Connor lined up to hit what was sure to be the winning ’65 into the Town End has returned regularly over the years, even if was quickly followed by the joy when it sailed wide. There’s a German word for that, but the years since have taught me to be careful about taking to much pleasure in the misfortune of others. You never know what’s around the corner, especially in Cork.
The middle game taught me one of the great altruistic lessons of being a hurling fan: never, EVER put up an umbrella in a crowded environment. The great Micheál O’Heihr implored a fan during the All-Ireland football final of ’82 to “get wet like a man”, and while the language in the big stand in Thurles focussed more on where the umbrella would be put if it weren’t taken down, immediately, the sentiment was the same.
Inevitably, it was John Fitzgibbon who brought an end to the saga, and I still remember his interview on RTE Radio on the way home. Fitzgibbon was an icon, famous for his worship of Ring, his thirst for goals and his ambivalence to any game that wasn’t Tipp, Kilkenny or an All-Ireland final. He didn’t seem overly impressed to have added a league bauble to his All-Ireland of 1990, and he was soon to be gone Stateside, never to return.
The three games also confirmed an absolute adoration of Brian Corcoran and with him in the side, the footballers about to embark on another three-in-a-row campaign in Munster and Cork City winning the league, the future was bound to be golden.
Then they lost to Clare, lost to Limerick, lost to Clare again, were humiliated by Limerick at home and, with no backdoor in place, the gleeful mood of optimism that followed the ’93 title was soon replaced by a sense of despair.
Cork was relegated in 1996 and though they bounced back up in ’97 and were much better in losing to Clare in the championship, it was another short summer. There was, however, a sprinkling of stardust to be excited about. You all know who they were.
In 1998 things started coming together. There was a sense of joyous confusion when Clare was beaten by eleven points in the league semi-final and then there was the final when Sean O’Farrell cut loose. Cork brought big crowds to both of those games, and a feature of then and of the years to come were the queues in Fermoy and Mitchelstown, the panic stricken about turns and the voyages of discovery around the back roads of Tipperary.
Clare’s tour-de-force in the Munster semi-final took a lot of the goodness of the victory in 1998, but it’s only when looking back that its value can be seen. It gave a group of young players their first taste of senior success. Remarkably, six players who started that final wouldn’t make the starting fifteen one year later in Croke Park as another group of talented young players sped through. It all sounds very familiar.
League finals have brought nothing but disappointment since, and some of those disappointments were more harrowing than others. 2002 signalled the start of a tumult we still haven’t properly emerged from even if there was a brief interlude of dominant glory. In 2010 we flattered to deceive, 2012 was the dictionary definition of stage fright and in 2015 the hurling world passed us out again.
Overall, Cork’s record in the league has transformed from decent up until 1981 (twelve titles) to deplorable in the last forty when we’ve only managed to add two more to the total. This, of course, is in tune with our shocking decline and fall from grace.
Tomorrow, a win is badly needed. Cork have drawn one national final and lost six of them since 2005. That record needs to change. We need to start winning things again. In a fortnight Limerick might do unto us what Clare did in ’98. Or they might not. As ever, the most important game is the next one.