The names used just drip off the tongue; Gardiner, Curran, O’hAilpin. Always in that order. Like the columns of Ancient Greece, they supported the entire infrastructure, emanating a sense of order, strength and balance. For much of the mid-Noughties, their omnipresence in Cork’s half-back line rendered team announcements obsolete, their unwavering consistency firmly shutting the door in the face of all other aspirants to Cork’s first line of defense. For the best part of six years, as the natural metamorphosis of the team saw the names of those around them change, not even the passing of time could weaken that impenetrable fortification.
Just let the numbers do the talking. An alliance which debuted in the pulsating Munster Final of 2004, the indominable axis from Cork’s inner-city monopolised numbers five to seven for sixteen consecutive games. But for Sean Og’s suspension in the aftermath of the on-field skirmish with Clare in 2007, that figure would have stretched to twenty-three. In the thirty-five championship matches played between the ’04 defeat to Waterford and the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny, John Gardiner, Ronan Curran and Sean Og O’hAilpin played thirty-four, thirty-two and thirty-one times respectively. In total, they made a staggering twenty-eight appearances under the banner of Cork’s half-back line.
Only in exceptional circumstances was their vice-grip relinquished. Despite being proven hurlers in their own right, Cork’s half-back understudies became victims of unfortunate timing. O’hAilpin’s aforementioned suspension allowed Russell Rover’s Kevin Hartnett to briefly sample life as a brick in the wall. Castlelyon’s Ciaran McGann and Eoin Cadogan from Douglas both benefitted from injuries to make one appearance apiece in 2008. Erin’s Own’s Peter Kelly, a county panellist between ’05 and ’07, failed to make a single championship appearance despite his significant contributions at wing-back to two county titles for his club. All in all, in seven championship seasons, no other player lined out in Cork’s half-back line on more than one occasion. Eventually, by the time the band broke up, none of the frustrated underlings were around to take their place.
Starting five of the seven championship games together in 2010, Gardiner, Curran and O’hAilpin played their last game as a trio in the twelve point All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny. By the end of 2012, all three had either stepped away of their own accord or been ushered out unceremoniously. The search for replacements was bound to be arduous, although the 2013 championship which culminated in an All-Ireland final defeat to Clare offered flickers of hope. Brian Murphy was nominated for an All-Star at wing-back, having been removed from his natural habitat in the corner. Christopher Joyce and William Egan too, proved that despite their rawness, they were not totally out of depth in inter-county waters.
However, five minutes into the replayed decider, when Pat Donellan parted the Red Sea to set up Shane O’Donnell’s opening goal, the underlying question marks that surrounded Cork’s back-line became a harsh reality. While Cork evidently possessed an attack capable of winning an All-Ireland, ultimately it was their defence that lost them one. The ensuing years has seen what was once an impenetrable unit become a fragmented patchwork, it’s porosity underpinning Cork’s subsequent failings. Waterford’s Austin Gleeson and Galway’s Johnny Glynn both slalomed with impunity through the heart of Cork’s defence in 2014. Gleeson repeated the trick spectacularly in the closing stages of the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final to extinguish All-Ireland aspirations once more. Would the old guard have been as accommodating?
Since 2013, various managers have overseen a revolving-door policy at half-back. Egan, having opted to step away from the panel in 2015, never kicked on while Joyce, for all his admirable qualities (not least the steely determination shown to return to inter-county action after two cruciate injuries) has never threatened to emulate his predecessors from Fairhill. Twelve other players have manned Cork’s half-back line since then, none of whom have come close to replicating the consistency of past luminaries. The most solid trinity has been that of Joyce, Mark Ellis and Mark Coleman, who between 2017 and 2018, amassed seven games in a row in Cork’s half-back line, annexing a couple of Munster championships along the way.
The centre-back position, in particular has remained problematic. Mark Ellis, an archetypical number six, came closest to aping the stability and presence once afforded by Curran. Jimmy Barry-Murphy regretted not playing Ellis against Clare in ’13 and a year later, Ellis was Cork’s de-facto defensive fulcrum, a post he retained for much of the next five seasons, a brief redeployment to full-back for the calamitous 2016 campaign notwithstanding. However, uncertainty surrounding the centre-back position has resurfaced. Eoin Cadogan replaced Ellis midway through the 2018 championship while Tim O’Mahony, Robert Downey and Steven McDonnell all operated at the heart of Cork’s defense last year.
If there is any solace to be gleaned from Cork’s plight, it is in the knowledge that our old foes Kilkenny have too been burdened with the task of reconstructing an illustrious half-back line. Since the retirement of Tommy Walsh in 2013 and J.J Delaney’s relocation to the full back line towards the latter end of his career, a rotating cast of young pretenders have auditioned at numbers five, six and seven, with varying levels of success. While Padraig Walsh, Kieran Joyce and Cillian Buckley did temporarily manage to establish a formidable triumvirate, stringing together ten consecutive games between the All-Ireland Final replay in 2014 and the 2016 decider, Brian Cody has tinkered with thirteen different half-backs in total since that rematch with Tipperary six years ago. Like Cork, the perfect formula has yet to be ascertained.
Seven years ago, Cork briefly trialled Patrick Cronin at centre-back, an experiment which culminated in league relegation. Earlier this year, Bill Cooper was mooted as the latest square peg entrusted to plug Cork’s gaping round hole. Eight different players were used across Cork’s half-back line over the course of this year’s league. Defeats to Waterford, Limerick and Galway suggest that we are no closer to finding a solution to a problem that has now lingered for the best part of a decade.
In the intervening years, the Cork hurling fraternity has learned that while it’s relatively easy to knock a wall, putting it back together again can be much more challenging.