With the Leaving Certificate falling by the wayside, there goes yet another institution of Irish life consigned to the Covid scrap heap. Barring some extraordinary medical breakthrough, the All-Ireland championships look set to go the same way. The poignancy of the situation was captured brilliantly in the recent promotional video for The Sunday Game, a montage comprising locked gates and vacant pitches, interspersed with glorious hurling and football moments of old, all set to a sombre acoustic version of Don Henley’s ‘Boys of Summer’, “nobody on the road, nobody on the beach, I feel it in the air, the summer’s out of reach.”
While it appears that the fate of Leaving Cert students will now rely solely on their pre-pandemic exertions, thankfully this isn’t an option being explored by Croke Park. In Cork, we customarily adopt an analogous train of thought to that of the reluctant scholar who espouses the mantra “It’s only the Pre’s!”, resolutely asserting that it will all work out on the day. Similarly, “It’s only the league!” remains a popular maxim on Leeside, as we stagger unconvincingly through much of the early season. Like the student who devotes all their time and energy into the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop because “she comes up every year!”, Cork supporters tend to be rather blasé about our inability to unearth a few more scoring forwards each spring, safe in the knowledge that come summertime, Hoggy will just save our bacon yet again.
But while our league form didn’t exactly instil an optimism that the summer examinations would yield positive results, who’s to say that Cork couldn’t have been that one kid who emerges each August with the most unexpected of results, the perennial dark horse that belies all early-season forecasts. It’s not like we haven’t form in that regard. The correlation between Cork’s league record and their subsequent championship performances has rarely been uniform; relegation in 2013 was followed by an All-Ireland final appearance while a sixth-place finish in 2018 preluded a highly successful provincial campaign. Sure, we even lost up in Laois back in ’99!
All of which is moot now of course. John Horan essentially quashed any hopes that a championship could be played this summer, even in the most truncated of guises, even in the most sterilised of environments. If every player and paying patron was to be submerged head-first into an Atlantic Pond full of disinfectant prior to entry into the Park, there still would be no games played in Cork for the forseeable future. Or anywhere else for that matter. That means no jaunts from the Idle Hour down the Centre Park Road, no pilgrimages to Thurles, no railway excursions through Charleville, Limerick Junction, Portlaoise and the likes.
We used to plan our holidays around such trips, meticulously planning and prognosticating to avoid potential clashes with Munster Finals and qualifiers, delicately trying to convince our misfortunate travelling companions that while two weeks in Alicante in June does sound idyllic, it might be better to hold off until late September or October. It’ll be cheaper obviously, quieter too. And sure, isn’t a trip to Waterford a little holiday in itself? If it just so happens to encompass seventy minutes in Walsh Park, then all the better! That’s the cruel, all-encompassing nature of the whole thing though; a summer without sport would be ideal for holiday plans, a summer without holiday plans would be ideal for sport. What are we left with now? There’s only so much nostalgia a man can take before the methadone begins to lose its potency.
In normal circumstances, we’d be starting to put together the logistics for the journey down the N25 around now. There’d be a lad from the club that was down there for a league game a few years back who’d claim to have found a lovely little parking spot altogether, promising to text it on to you later. “Not many pubs around down there”, he’d warn, “maybe chance Paddy Browne’s, or Katty Barry’s, but it’s a bit of a walk”. It would have coincided with the Cork Marathon too, a possible conflict of interests for the more athletic of Cork’s travelling legions. “Go ‘way ya langer! Run away down to Killeagh for yourself, we’ll collect ya at the Old Thatch. Two birds, one stone”, would have been the likely retort to any suggestion of wavering loyalties.
It would have been the first trip to Waterford for a championship game in forty-five years. In every local, there’d be an aul’ fella telling you how he was below there in ’74 when Cork were sent packing before June. He’d be grabbing you by the arm and regaling you with the bizarre tale of how Paddy Barry was sent off all those years ago, of how the Vincent’s man hit the umpire with the broken part of his hurley after throwing it away in disgust, having conceded a soft goal. “It should have been a free out in the first place”, he’d be sure to add. We’d have fancied our chances down there too you know. We might have been wretched against them in January but I’m sure that would have been conveniently discarded, as is customary after abject performances in the depths of January. “Ah sure we’d no hurling done, we were only just back. And sure wasn’t there a good few of ‘em still involved with the Fitz?”
Next weekend was scheduled as our weekend off, our opportunity to take stock and assess the situation. In all likelihood, the Lehane conundrum would still be a prickly topic of bar-stool debate, the staunch “He goes missing…” dissidents versus the steadfast “Ah, but on his day…” loyalists. Nash’s puckouts would probably be another bone of contention, a dispute which would act as a natural segue into the habitual chastising of our dearth of ball-winners on the 40. “Sure, he’s nothing to aim for Denis!” Oh, and don’t forget the lack of depth, that old chestnut. You see, Limerick would have sprung Flanagan and Reidy the last day. It would have made the difference too. O’Flynn might have looked lively when he came on for us but that would have been about the bones of it really.
Ah ya, we’d probably be awfully despondent altogether. But Christ, wouldn’t it be better than this.