Patrick Horgan and the Eternal Quest

When Patrick Horgan collected his fourth All-Star last November, he became the first outfield player since 2012 to pick up the award from outside that year’s semi-finalists. In recent years, All-Star honours have been reserved for those who have hurled long into August and September so to earn recognition despite mid-July elimination is testament to Horgan’s brilliance this summer. Only John Fenton, Tony O’Sullivan and Jimmy Barry-Murphy have now accrued more All-Stars on Leeside but it’s the accumulation of All-Ireland titles that differentiates Horgan from the rest of that exclusive group. If Celtic Crosses are the only accepted legal tender for entry to the pantheon inhabited by Fenton, Barry-Murphy et al, where does that leave a man who for over a decade, has bestowed such greatness on the hurling world? In an era of unprecedented scoring, Patrick Horgan has emerged as one of the most accomplished practitioners of the craft. However, while contemporaries such as Reid, Callanan and Canning have all reached the Promised Land, Horgan and Cork continue to wander the desert.

Horgan, Reid, Canning and Callanan all made their championship debuts in 2008

For less than two minutes in 2013, the Land of Milk and Honey was in sight. With the clock reading 70:38, Christopher Joyce’s side-line finds Horgan, who is having an uncharacteristically quiet game and enduring an eternity (37 minutes) without touching the ball in play. Not that it matters. He controls the ball with deft assuredness and turns his man on the 45m line. Most players in such a scenario, under pressure from two Clare defenders, susceptible to a hook from behind and a block from the front, would run at the opposition, hoping to create space or possibly draw a free. Conor Lehane had found himself in a similar position thirty minutes previous, only to turn on the after-burners and sear through the Clare defence for Cork’s opening goal. But of all the gifts bestowed upon Horgan, of all the attributes honed on the playing fields and ball alleys of Blackpool, pace isn’t one of them. In it’s place however, is an elasticity of the wrist which removes the necessity for backlift and the separation from opponent required by mere mortals. Horgan flicks the ball over the bar with a nonchalance that defies the gravity of the situation. It’s Hoggy encapsulated. A mesmeric score created from nothing and executed with sheer finesse. A point worthy of winning any All-Ireland Final but one that will be forever overshadowed in the annals of history by Domhnaill O’Donovan’s subsequent effort.  As a certain ‘gammy’ Clare man once said, “Sure look, hurling. A thousand mad things and someone comes out on top.” The madness of those two minutes in 2013, one hundred seconds of sliding-doors moments, still haunt the Cork hurling fraternity.

Patrick Horgan after scoring point in injury-time of 2013 All-Ireland Hurling Final

An inability to transfer Munster success onto a national scale has been a stick with which to beat Horgan’s Cork teams since underage. He featured prominently on the ’05 and ’06 Munster winning minor sides which completed the three-in-a-row of provincial triumphs at that grade. On each occasion however, they were felled by Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final. While Horgan’s precocious talent was well-known at that stage, it could be argued that his namesake Cronin was more highly regarded, his physicality and ball-winning capabilities deemed a prerequisite in the modern game. Cronin’s Bishopstown had dominated underage hurling in Cork for much of the mid-Noughties, claiming minor titles in ’02 and ’03 as well as U-21 honours in ’06 and ’07. Captaining the Cork minor’s in ’05, he scored 1-10 in the Munster final defeat of Limerick before playing a leading role in Bishopstown’s 2006 Premier Intermediate success and cementing his status as a player capable of lessening the burden on Niall McCarthy in an otherwise lightweight Cork attack. The Kilkenny behemoth of the time were changing the landscape of inter-county hurling, their directness and unmatched physicality having surpassed Cork’s impish running game as the template for success. “Hurling savagery” as Ger Loughnane described it. The general consensus was that unless that ‘savagery’ was matched, Kilkenny’s ferociousness would always supersede the more aesthetic elements of the game. The days of the elegant corner-forward had been consigned to the past. The jury was out on whether Horgan could survive in this new age. 

Patrick Horgan v Limerick in 2005 Munster Minor Hurling Championship Final

“History had it’s moment in Pairc Ui Chaoimh yesterday” read the opening line of the Irish Times match report on Cork and Tipperary’s encounter on June 8th 2008, its significance owing to Tipperary ending an 85-year losing sequence against their old foes on Leeside. The other post-match talking-points focused on Cork’s abject second-half performance as well as the issue of overcrowding at the Blackrock End which resulted in 400 fans being led onto the pitch to avert a crush. What we didn’t know at the time however, was that we had just seen two of the greatest marksmen of the ensuing decade take their fledgling steps on the inter-county scene. Seamus Callanan would make hay from centre-forward that day, notching three points on his championship debut for Tipperary. At the other end, Cork’s offensive malfunction saw five of the starting six forwards called ashore, Patrick Horgan making his intercounty bow as a late replacement for Niall McCarthy when defeat was all but assured. Horgan would score his first senior championship point a month later, the last score in an unconvincing Qualifier victory over Dublin, a game which seemed to endorse the belief that the end was nigh for the great Cork team of the Noughties. Indeed, the subsequent victory over Galway would prove to be the last great deed of a dying team. Horgan would be introduced to the fray at half-time, his side two points and a man down to a Galway side already heavily reliant on another precocious talent, “The one sharpened blade in a gunfight”, as Tom Humphries had put it. Joe Canning had run amok in the first-half, turning the Rock of Cloyne to salt and confirming his greatness a mere three games into his maiden season. Ultimately though, Cork would win by two, inspired by Joe Deane, railing against the dying of the light in his final season. Horgan, his heir apparent, would also play his part, notching only the second point of his career. Joe Canning would end the year as Young Hurler of the Year and the patriarchal figure in a Galway side devoid of leadership.  Six month’s Canning’s senior, Horgan’s induction wouldn’t be as seamless.

Cork fans watching Cork v Tipperary 2008 from pitch-side after over-crowding at Blackrock End

Horgan’s initiation to Cork hurling was completed in 2009 when he became accustomed to its off-field travails, an acrimonious strike consigning yet another season to spoilage. By 2010, however, the skies had cleared and Horgan began to assert himself as a prominent marksman, scoring 2-34 as Cork reached that year’s National League Final. He would continue his good form into the championship, dovetailing effectively with Aisake O’hAilpin and pilfering two goals in the ten-point destruction of Tipperary. But the game was changing, the gladiatorial intensity of the ‘09 All-Ireland Final demonstrating that forwards no longer had license to rely solely on their scoring returns. With free-taking duties still entrusted in Ben O’Connor, accusations arose that Horgan’s in-play contributions were insufficient. He was replaced at half-time in the helter-skelter Munster Final replay against Waterford, a game where the delicacy of his skillset was rendered obsolete by the torrential weather conditions. Not for the last time, the term ‘flakiness’ would be affiliated disparagingly with Horgan. Having been demoted to the bench for the All-Ireland Quarter-Final victory over Antrim, he regained his place for the subsequent semi-final against Kilkenny. As the game headed towards its inevitable conclusion, Horgan would score four points from play off Jackie Tyrell, early glimpses that his graft and guile would not be held subordinate to the increasingly physical modern game.

Patrick Horgan v Antrim in 2010 All-Ireland Quarter Final

Cork were enduring a period of turbulent transition at best, a period of steady decline at worst. Despite their woes, Horgan established himself as one of the country’s stand-out assailants, amassing 3-38 and 1-42 respectively, over the course of two seasons. In the intervening years, the Glen Rovers man quickly became one of the side’s more experienced players, his progression accelerated by the vast turn-over in playing personnel. The gradual decommissioning of the mid-Noughties side was bound to be an arduous task, one exacerbated by the apparent paucity of talent coming through in its stead. Between 2010 and 2013, stalwarts such as Ronan Curran, Niall McCarthy and the O’Connor twins all departed the scene while Donal Og Cusack, John Gardiner and Sean Og O’hAilpin were ushered out with a little less diplomacy. When Cork took the field to play Clare in the opening round of the 2013 Munster Championship, only Anthony Nash, Brian Murphy and Tom Kenny had made their debuts before Horgan. Of the rest, only Stephen Moylan, William Egan and Luke O’Farrell had experienced any degree of underage success. Relegation from the top tier of the National Hurling League seemed to reinforce the idea that this was a team on a downward curve. The volatility of the 2013 was unforeseen, a throwback to the Revolution Years of the mid-90’s. For most, the championship is remembered fondly as one of the most magical in the GAA’s history, awash with drama and unpredictability. For Horgan and the rest of Cork’s hurling community however, those memories are tinged with anguish, regret and a sense of ‘what could have been’. Horgan’s red-card in his first Munster Final evaporated any hope of provincial silverware while his aforementioned wonder-point lost much of its lustre moments later. A first All-Star award provided an opioid to the pain while the patrons on Leeside could at least take some solace in the pervading hope that Cork had re-emerged as one of the powerhouses of the game. It would prove to be yet another false dawn.

If the progress of 2013 suggested that a sleeping giant was finally awakening from a lengthy slumber, the years that followed would rewrite the narrative. Although Horgan and co. would atone for the year previous in 2014, defeating Limerick in the Munster decider, a wretched All-Ireland semi-final performance against Tipperary debunked the cliched ‘Mushroom Theory’ that had permeated back into Cork hurling lexicon. Cork were by now in the throes of an underage development crisis, the drought on a national scale dating back to 2001. At senior level, the knock-on effect was evident, the regression in the performance of established players undoubtedly owing to the dearth of competition. By the end of 2016, Horgan’s scoring average from play in championship had dropped to below two points per game. Old accusations regarding the efficacy of his overall game began to gain traction once more. In the February of 2017, Cork manager Kieran Kingston dropped Horgan, opting for stick over carrot to coax more out of his talisman. For the first time in almost six years, Cork lined out in a competitive game without Horgan and despite a comfortable Kilkenny victory, he was again among the subs for the following week’s game against Waterford. Whether subconsciously or not, it lit a fire under Horgan, extracting from him a level of performance that has seen him occupy a different stratosphere to many of his peers. Scoring four points from play in the unexpected championship defeat of Tipperary, Horgan continued his stellar form throughout the summer, over-taking Christy Ring as Cork’s all-time championship record scorer in the Munster Final defeat of Clare. Averaging four points from play over the course of the championship, any allegations of an over-reliance on placed balls were soon suppressed. 2018 would follow a similar trajectory, provincial honours and an All-Star doing little to quell the frustration of another All-Ireland semi-final defeat, the sixth of Horgan’s career.

Horgan has scored 33% of all Cork’s championship scores since 2008

These frustrations are unlikely to be abated unless Horgan can finally land that elusive Celtic Cross. If intercounty hurling is gradually becoming No Country for Old Men, Horgan refuses to be pigeon-holed as the protagonist struggling to adapt to the changing world. Last season was unquestionably his best, a new-found proclivity for goal-scoring demonstrating that some old dogs can acquire new tricks. Having only scored fourteen goals in eleven seasons prior to this year’s championship, Horgan added seven more to his tally this summer. His virtuoso performance against Kilkenny was a microcosmic representation of an oxymoronic inter-county career to date, individual magnificence against a backdrop of disappointment. Last November, as Horgan was collecting his third All-Star award, esteemed film-maker Sam Blair was releasing ‘Make Us Dream’, a revelatory documentary centred around Steven Gerrard. The theme of the film focuses on how Gerrard became perhaps the greatest player in the history of Liverpool FC at a time when trophies were on the wane and the player’s personal mission to restore the club to the apex of the game. It is impossible not to draw correlations between Horgan and Gerrard, both victims of timing, both burdened with the hopes and expectations of traditional sporting bastions enduring periods of crippling underachievement. This year, Patrick Horgan joined another select cohort of tragic heroes which epitomizes the cruel realities of team sport, an arena where individual excellence is not a guarantor of ultimate glory. Limerick’s Gary Kirby ended his career with four All-Stars, as did Ollie Canning of Galway. Waterford’s Michael Walsh also has four, while his former teammate John Mullane in five holds the bittersweet record of most All-Stars without an All-Ireland. These names are all synonymous with the tales of anguish that have become part of hurling’s tapestry in recent decades. Canning and Kirby were yesterday’s men by the time Galway and Limerick ended their respective ‘famines’. The cavalier Waterford team of the Noughties featuring Mullane and Walsh will unfortunately always be remembered for their Croke Park failings. Will Horgan be remembered in a similar vein? The worry on Leeside is that despite his Indian summer, time is running out.

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