With 22 minutes gone on the clock, an unsightly conglomeration of bodies formed around the middle of the field, with neither side able to gain control of the precious commodity that bounced between bodies like a hot spud. All the while, Patrick Horgan waited patiently on the periphery for the opportune moment to pounce. Seamus Harnedy and Luke Meade, working in tandem, sandwiched Michael Breen, forcing him to relinquish possession. A deft flick from Horgan intercepted the intended hand pass and off he galloped, the gale in his face, Brian O’Meara at his tail. A low shot to the keeper’s right and Cork were level. Five minutes later, Tim O’Mahony put the finishing touch on an expertly choreographed attack and Cork led by one. Tipp were on the ropes. Only Cork’s underlying failings ensured that the knockout blow never came.
Tipp were there for the taking, let there be no doubt about that. In the GAA’s own version of the Beaufort Scale, the raging tempest at the start of the game was roughly gauged at a “six-point wind” in Tipp’s favour. A one-point deficit at the half-hour mark should have proved fatal, even allowing for the subsequent easing of conditions. The lead-up to Horgan’s goal perfectly encapsulated Cork’s first-half performance, a monument to intensity and tenacity, key tenets of the game that were so conspicuously absent against Waterford. With the ball, they boxed clever, the efficacy of their short game negating the impact of the wind and rain. Tipperary’s wayward shooting only compounded their problems. When John McGrath was on the receiving end of the curly finger just before half-time, it solidified the belief that this was Cork’s day and that the All-Ireland champions were about to be toppled.
But when his brother suffered a similar fate late in the second half, Tipp were only one point in arrears. Since Jason Forde’s sucker punch of a goal however, Cork had outscored their opponents eight points to three. Again, Tipp appeared to be in a world of trouble. It’s not often that the McGrath brothers are dragged, and it is testament to Cork’s hard graft around the middle-third that both were deemed surplus to requirements. But with the result of the game teetering in the balance with ten minutes remaining, that alone wasn’t going to tip the outcome in Cork’s favour. How often has it been said that the quality of Cork’s attack is indisputable, undermined only by an aversion to less glamorous facets of the game? One must now seriously question the validity of that theory. Aside from Harnedy, Cork’s forward division offered very little in terms of guile and with the game in the melting pot, not even our resident magician could conjure a moment of magic from play.
Conor Lehane, upon his entry, did little to suggest that his Cork career is salvageable while the late introductions of Aidan Walsh and Billy Hennessy highlighted the dearth of game-changing personnel available to Kingston. Tipperary, on the other hand, were able to call upon the likes of Mark Kehoe and Paddy Caddell, both of whom are well versed in the art of drawing Rebel blood at the Gaelic Grounds. Willie Connors and Paul Flynn meanwhile, pilfered three points between them. Even in relatively fruitful times, Cork have been manacled by the lack of viable alternatives on the bench, particularly in attack. Who can forget Daniel Kearney being glued back together and thrown back into the fray against Limerick two years ago? Unfortunately, despite the emergence of Declan Dalton and Jack O’Connor this season, the same problem still persists.
Horgan will be 33 next year, Harnedy 31. In an era where 25 points over 70 minutes is considered the minimum benchmark for success, the scoring burden will need to be distributed more evenly and the jury is still out on whether Shane Kingston, Robbie O’Flynn and the rest of the supporting cast can offer a potent attacking threat on a consistent basis. A couple of genuine ball-winners wouldn’t go astray either, the lack of which has been a stick to beat this team for well over a decade, if not longer. The loss of Daniel Kearney, in this regard, is probably underestimated. In a team where the ball is unlikely to be attained in the air, his ability to garner possession on terra-firma has not been replicated. How often have we seen his diminutive frame emerge from a labyrinth of ash and legs with ball in hand? His qualities last Saturday would not have gone unnoticed.
Perhaps, it could be argued, to a certain degree at least, that our defence is finally beginning to take shape and morph into something vaguely resembling a dependable sextet. After a nomadic start to his inter-county career, Tim O’Mahony may have finally found a home for himself in the half-back line. Alongside him, Robert Downey appears capable of growing into a formidable presence, despite an unquestionable yet understandable rawness. The performances of Mark Coleman against Dublin and in the first half against Tipperary meanwhile, should ensure that opposition managers will be reluctant to play a sweeper against Cork in future, knowing that it could play into the hands of the elegant Blarney man.
A point worth mentioning however is that of the six backs that lined out against Tipperary last Saturday, only Downey played in defence for his club this season, with the rest plying their trade at midfield or half-forward (all of which begs the question – have we stopped making Brian Murphy’s?) A nod to Rinus Michel’s enthralling Dutch side of the ‘70’s perhaps, whose philosophy incorporated a fluid system in which no positions were pre-determined and backs, forwards and midfielders were inter-changeable. But ‘Total Hurling’ this is not. Despite some notable improvements in Cork’s backline this season, there is a glass ceiling on what can be achieved without the introduction of some hearty, honest-to-god stoppers. The Dutch won fuck all as well remember.
So, on the face of it, another miserable year for Cork hurling, which began in earnest with a defeat to Waterford back in January. Nine months, one global pandemic and three (or is it four?) Ministers for Agriculture down the line and what have we learned about this Cork team that wasn’t already abundantly clear. The dearth of options in attack has been flagged long before now, as has the over-reliance on Horgan and to a lesser extent, Harnedy. As mentioned above, the shallowness of the bench is nothing new either. Kingston remarked after the game that this team are ready to ‘take the next step for Cork hurling’. Ehm…we thought that three years ago Kieran, with all due respect. Continual steps, year after year, in the right direction is the more pertinent issue. To quote that old country rock ditty, ‘one step forward and two steps back, nobody gets too far like that, one step forward and two steps back, this kind of dance can never last’. This dastardly dance has lasted 15 years and counting now.
Digging for positives is an arduous task when we’ve failed to make the last six of a ten team competition but at the very least, there is a modicum of comfort to be taken from the fact that a couple of months have already been shed from this year’s winter of discontent. Ordinarily, our bags would have been packed before August. Two months from now, the misplaced optimism and delusions of grandeur will have returned. We’re not that bad, are we? And then there’s that old nugget ‘perspective’, so often the last refuge of the despondent. More tragic occurrences have befallen people this year that a Jake Morris bullet to the bottom corner. We’ll get over it, I suppose. And besides, it’s only an aul mockeyah championship this year anyway.