63 minutes gone, six points up; it can’t happen again. 65 minutes gone, five points up; no, it can’t happen again. 67 minutes gone, three points up; oh God it’s happening again. 69 minutes gone, two points up; I can’t believe it’s happening again. Head in hands, heart palpitations, motionless, speechless. Flashbacks of Quaid’s save and all those Gillane frees. Then Mullen bangs. It’s happened again. And there are some that view the reliving of traumatic episodes as a form of catharsis?
In the end, I suppose that’s exactly what it was. Cork’s own take on exposure therapy, in the same way that someone with a fear of snakes might be instructed to grab one by the throat, look it in the eye and belatedly realise that when in control, there is nothing to fear. Last weekend, when once again faced with the psychological torment of having to effectively win a game for the second time, Cork grabbed the All-Ireland semi-final by the throat, looked it straight in the eye and refused to relinquish its vice-grip until the trauma of 2018 dissipated into the August air. Yet another question asked of this young Cork team, yet another question emphatically answered. A demon conquered, but a monster awaits.
A monster that, since that game three years ago, has annexed two All-Ireland titles, three provincial crowns and have been unbeaten in the championship for over two years, with an average winning margin across those games of almost eight points. All things considered then, I don’t think it can be construed as playing the béal bocht to suggest that Cork’s tag as rank outsiders for next Sunday’s clash is completely valid. The Rebels might have just sacked an old fortress but until proven otherwise, the walls of Limerick still appear impenetrable. Not that we’d be engaging in the type of faux-pessimism more accustomed to our westerly neighbours and heading up to Dublin telling all and sundry that yerra we’ll be doing well just to keep it pucked out to them. It’s just that, notwithstanding Cork’s unquestionable improvements over the past year and irrespective of all the problems that the likes of Horgan, Kingston and O’Connor might cause Limerick, there is still no logical argument to be made in favour of a Cork victory next weekend. I’m afraid that’s just the way it is.
But in all honestly, All-Ireland final week is no place for logical analysis anyhow, not when a potent fusion of rose-tinted nostalgia, manic hysteria and the insatiable yearning for success that comes with a sixteen-year hiatus from the top table can paint the outlook of the game in a far more glamourous light. Sure, even when we weren’t going well, we still had the audacity to wax lyrical about our ‘Corkness’ and all the wondrous virtues that it bestowed upon us so we hardly need logical analysis to be on our side in order to be infused with “that air of confidence just on the right side of arrogance“. That was only 2019 remember, not long before Tipperary, Clare and Kilkenny made it abundantly clear that that inflated sense of self wasn’t the magic ingredient that we might have hoped it be. We’ve actually a formidable team worthy of our prestige now, built on foundations far sturdier than delusional self-aggrandisement. So you can forgive the unbridled optimism in the face of those three-to-one odds.
You see, what bookies fail to incorporate into their algorithms is that ofttimes, sport manages to defy all reason and laugh in the face of all logic. Basic hurling acumen dictated that greenhorn full-back Robert Downey shouldn’t have been able to quell the threat of T.J. Reid when he was finally stationed at the edge of the square the last day out. Basic physics dictated that Mark Coleman shouldn’t have been capable of flattening big Wally out over the end-line too. Sometimes, things just happen in games that no amount of cold, hard analysis can legislate for. Ten years ago, almost to the day, after Dublin had given the reigning champions Tipperary the fright of their lives in the All-Ireland semi-final, Anthony Daly came out with the immortal line, “Sure look, hurling, a thousand mad things happen, and someone comes out on top”. You know, when mad things start happening, it doesn’t take long for that three-to-one docket to start appreciating in value.
Think back to 2013, our last invitation to the big dance, and all of the wild, unscripted chaos that unfolded before our disbelieving eyes. It just so happened that when the music stopped, it was Clare that came out on top. It could just as easily have been us. Such was the sheer anarchy of those two games that despite Clare being the vastly superior team over more than two hours of hurling, a fairly limited Cork team was still within touching distance when the clock ticked into additional time of the replay. Go back even further to 1990, when an unfancied Cork side were four points in arrears against another side aiming for their third All-Ireland title in four years. Martin Naughton smashes a ball off Cunningham’s skull, the umpire inexplicably signals a wide ball and the game turns on its head. You know the rest. As Daly said, mad things happen, and on such incidents, All-Irelands can be won or lost.
As daft and all as it sounds, Cork won’t fear Limerick, even if they should, even if they’re as a fearsome an outfit that has ever stood between them and All-Ireland glory. Much like in 1990 and 2013, when Cork entered into finals as underdogs against teams stationed outside of hurling’s traditional hegemony, whatever disparity in class existed between the teams was offset to an extent by the weight of history and the belief that old money will always carry more clout around town than the nouveau riche. And as it will be next Sunday, Cork versus Limerick, thirty All-Ireland titles versus nine. It might count for absolutely nothing, but if enough mad things happen and the game is in the balance with ten minutes to go, it might count for an awful lot too. All of which brings to mind a line from Padraig Pearse’s aptly titled poem ‘The Rebel’. “I have no treasure but hope, no riches laid up but the memory of an ancient glory”.
As irrational and unscientific a preview as you are likely to read over the coming days I’m sure, but one that can only be welcomed in the absence of anything more concrete in favour of a Cork win. As I said, we are heading into All-Ireland final week and I don’t care for your stream of cold, unbiased rationale over the next seven days. An eight-year itch has finally been scratched. Maybe, just maybe, a sixteen-year itch might be about to go the same way.
Up the Rebels.