There’s an iconic scene from The Wire where Baltimore detective Bunk Moreland confronts drug-dealing folk-hero Omar Little about a murder and enters into an impassioned soliloquy, lamenting the city’s fall into crime. “As rough as that neighbourhood could be, we had us a community…and now all we got is bodies…it makes me sick motherfucker how far we done fell”. The mood in Thurles last weekend exuded a similar mélange of anger and sorrow. Anger stemming from yet another capitulation. Yet another embarrassment. Sorrow stemming from the memory of what Cork hurling once represented. Of where we once were. And how far we done fell.
That fall, and the multitude of reasons that caused it, have been well-documented at this stage and need no further probing. In more recent times, many of the problems that became so synonymous with Cork hurling and it’s steady regression have been mirrored in Clare – a fractious relationship with a dictatorial county secretary, ongoing issues regarding team expenses, a dearth of adequate training facilities and an alarming decline in underage success to name but a few. Brian Lohan’s reign as Clare manager has thus far been pockmarked with such issues and yet, he has refused to allow performance levels become hostage to circumstance. Always competitive, forever dogged, no excuses. As the fella says, ‘tis the same water that softens the spud that hardens the egg.
How a mere two points separated the sides at the end of the game last Sunday is anyone’s guess. With just over fifty minutes gone on the clock, Clare were reduced to 14 men. Just prior to that, Alan Connolly’s goal and a point from Robbie O’Flynn had reduced the deficit to four and all of a sudden, the trajectory of the game somehow appeared to be tilted in Cork’s favour. Twenty minutes to win the game, twenty minutes to salvage the season, twenty minutes of what should have been pure, febrile, kill or be killed, Munster hurling. What transpired instead epitomised every negative connation that, rightly or wrongly, has been thrown at this group of players over the past few days and weeks. Or even years.
The next passage of play saw Sean O’Donoghue burst out from defence with the ball before arrowing a low pass into the forward division, only for the Clare defence to bely their numerical disadvantage and regain possession from a cluster of bodies. The ball eventually found it’s way to David Fitzgerald, who made full use of the space afforded him to increase Clare’s lead. Moments later, David Ryan did likewise and when Darragh Fitzgibbon was hounded out of possession soon after, the gap was back to seven. At that juncture, Lohan’s boys must have known that their opponents lacked both the want and wherewithal to threaten them and that any thought of a ferocious battle down the stretch was fanciful. The Cork supporters knew it too. We’d seen it all before.
Last Summer, after Cork’s epic victory over the same opposition on that sweltering day above in the Gaelic Grounds, it was written (by me, admittedly!) of how this young team exhibited an air of defiance that had been absent for far too long. When Kilkenny were denied the most Kilkenny-like of victories in the subsequent All-Ireland semi-final, it really did seem that a corner had finally been turned. That ebullience even managed to survive the Limerick shellacking, written off in many quarters as nothing more than an occupational hazard, one that could have befallen anybody unfortunate enough to wander blindly into the path of a killing machine. Such buoyant optimism certainly seems foolish now. You’d think we’d have learned our lesson, considering the undulating fortunes of the Cork hurlers over the past decade and the tendency for relative highs to be followed almost immediately by absolute lows. Fool me once etc. etc.
Whether 2021 should be perceived as an outlier or not is debatable. It is certainly the case that last year’s propitious route to the decider (via Dublin and Kilkenny as opposed to Tipp, Waterford or Galway) rendered Cork’s true worth in a more favourable light, and in doing so, prematurely championed their All-Ireland winning credentials. But it is also the case that these players are not as bad as recent showings portray. While it can be a specious argument to point to the All-Star selection process as a true barometer of a player’s standing in the game, nine nominees from last year still suggests that team should be capable of so much more. Good players simply do not perform that badly, that many times. Or at least, they shouldn’t be allowed to.
The extent of Cork’s plight and the sheer scale of the decline, not only over the past month but over the course of almost two decades, points to problems far graver than an inability to claim primary ball or a proclivity for loose marking. While these glaring flaws will draw the bulk of the criticism, the more pertinent issues are undeniably systemic, embedded deep within the framework of Cork hurling, from coaching standards to tactical acumen to a culture of high-performance that is evidenced elsewhere. Sure, we can continue to spend our winters scapegoating the players and see where that gets us. Or continuing to bemoan how, even in a county comprising over two hundred clubs, “the hurlers just aren’t there”. Or for once, we could start questioning how, despite beating after beating, year after year, the county remains so stubbornly and hubristically insular. Maybe, just maybe, the Cork way mightn’t necessarily be the right way?
It must be remembered that in thirty years of trying, we have only produced one truly great team. The success of that team was built largely on quality coaching, an unwavering steeliness and above all else, an innovative understanding of how the game could be played on their terms. Now, there’s your outlier. And while it is often a dangerous and wholly futile game to obsess and romanticise over past glories, a return to the traits and values imbued by that team still remains the ultimate goal.
Last Sunday, I’m afraid, could not have been further removed from where we aspire to be. And make no mistake about it; it’s a long, long way from Clare to there.