The last time I was in Galway was this time three years ago. My wife has deep connections in the county and we are regular visitors to the City of the Tribes and its environs. Little did we know then about what was to come, so when the league fixtures were published for this season, a trip to Galway seemed like a good way to draw a line under all that did happen in those days, months and years since February 2020.
Well, that’s how I framed it anyway. The truth is that any semblance of meaning to the trip was appropriated long after the publication of the league programme. Galway is an enchanting city, a place to get lost in, to submerge yourself in, to disappear in; but the game is the game, and we all know it.
While three years have passed since that last trip to Galway, seven have passed since my first visit to Pearse Stadium. That was the first game that was the subject of this blog and, looking back, it was a game that epitomised how badly Cork had lost their way. Galway won by six points, but were infinitely better as Cork played the role of obedient visitors, putting up a token resistance that was a hallmark of our past docility.
There was no shortage of talent in the Cork ranks, there never is, plenty of nice young men with lovely smiles, but when you stagnate you fall behind, quickly. From that day in 2016, only Conor Lehane and Patrick Collins returned on Sunday – as did my father, my brother and I, still desperately searching for the light that will guide us to the promised land – while Patrick Horgan, Damien Cahalane, Alan Cadogan and Séamus Harnedy remain on the panel. And so it was, when the team was named on Thursday night, there were equal feelings of trepidation and excitement about the fifteen that were named to play.
Any serious Cork hurling supporter knows that there’s a bit of potential around the place, but such are the scars of our recent past, the idea of testing that potential in a trip across the Shannon is bound to increase the levels of anxiety. Push players too soon and they might, understandably, baulk, and such a rearward step just can’t be countenanced any longer.
Then, as the game approached the news of the injuries to Horgan and Cahalane came through and a team that was already light in experience suddenly became something we’ve never seen before, while Cathal Cormack also lost out on a chance to show his worth. A trip that has always been a searching test had, all of a sudden, became that bit more poignant. Galway were also mixing the new with the established, but such experimentation is often that bit easier at home.
And so the game began, with Galway looking a bit more composed, as Cork looked like what they were, on paper. More than ever at games, you find yourself more preoccupied with what’s happening when your team doesn’t have the ball; how hard are they trying to get it back? How organised are they from midfield back? How much pressure is on the player in possession? Do they really want to tackle?
From that perspective, Cork did well in the opening twenty minutes, even if they did creak on occasion. The full-back line looked a bit open during that time, but Conor Lehane’s goal, created by the exceptional Declan Dalton, levelled things up and gave everybody a chance to re-set. However, Martin McManus was causing Cork plenty of headaches and soon they were five down again. Then, all the things Cork were doing well off the ball crystalised a bit more. and before we knew it, they were up a point, and went in at half time level.
The murmurings in the stand at the interval were positive and the stage was set for a real test of Cork’s credentials. But that’s not how it turned out. Seán Twomey’s well taken goal had the dual effect of giving Cork the perfect start and reducing Galway to fourteen men after Shane Barrett was willing to take the necessary punishment to create the chance. While Galway strove to come to terms with the loss of Oisín Salmon, Cork made hay, with Lehane scoring the type of goal that Cork usually concede, and three quick points pretty much killed the game as a contest.
Up until the seventieth minute, Cork managed the game as well as you would have hoped they would. Twomey’s second goal was as thrilling as it was valueless while the injury time collapse was a stark reminder of where we are in the greater scheme of things.
And just where exactly do we stand in the greater scheme of things? I’m not so sure, and I don’t think that anybody else is either, but what I know is that we have been here before. We have seen enough spring promise implode right in front of our eyes over the past fifteen years to get too excited about a couple of decent wins in early February. The last place we want to be is back on the couch at the end of May, picking at a fake plastic tree and explaining how we just couldn’t stop ourselves getting sucked into the whirlpool again, how we thought that it would be different this time.
Today though, on the eve of the Feast of Saint Valentine, it is okay not to be completely cynical about our prospects, just as it would be silly to be unashamedly romantic. The start of the year has given us plenty to think about and the Fitzgibbon Cup will be over by the time Westmeath come to Páirc Uí Chaoimh the weekend after next. Then, for the first time, Pat Ryan will have the sole focus of the entirety of his squad. That squad looks healthier than it has for a long time and, as players come back from injury, there will be a lot of tough decisions to be made before the announcement of the twenty-six that will face Waterford at the end of April.
Wexford come to town the week after Westmeath and there’s a real danger that Cork could be in the last four of the league before they head to Ennis in the final round and, if that is the case, there will be more serious decisions to be made.
All in all, it’s not a bad place to be and, whatever happens from here, I think we can trust the men tasked with making those calls.