Just when I thought we were out, they pull us back in! Just when it seemed as though Cork’s fate had been sealed, a day of chaos transpires where Munster hurling rocks and rolls and the lie of the land is left a state of flux. At half three on Sunday, Cork supporters bounced out of Walsh Park with all the spirited defiance of Keegan ’96, clinging to the idea that all was not lost and that Waterford still had to go to Cusack Park and get something. No mean feat either, as Limerick soon discovered. By half five however, all computations and permutations had petered into insignificance, at least from a Cork perspective. Somehow, even after the most disastrous of campaigns comprising four weeks of torturous soul searching, destiny was in our own hands. It’s almost unfathomable, but a win against Tipp will now see us catapulted out of the province and into the open prairie of All-Ireland contention.
As evidenced once again, much of the difference between good Cork and bad Cork came down to attitude, work-rate and that bit of anger that flares up all too seldomly. Cork hadn’t travelled to Walsh Park for a championship game since 1974, a game in which goalkeeper Paddy Barry was sent-off for striking the umpire with the broken part of his hurley, the Vincent’s man having flung it away in disgust following the concession of a soft goal. For much of the game last weekend (one lapse in concentration by Robbie O’Flynn aside), this Cork team channelled Barry’s revulsion at the mere thought of a soft goal and worked tirelessly and tigerishly to ensure that, unlike in the league final eight weeks ago, Waterford wouldn’t be afforded the same liberties when bearing down on goal. As he did with Kelly last year, Niall O’Leary hung and swung off Austin Gleeson for sixty minutes and in doing so, diluted his genius down to a handful of points. Alongside him, Sean O’Donoghue did what Sean O’Donoghue does and low and behold, Waterford’s much-vaunted attacking ensemble didn’t seem all that terrifying.
To be fair, those two boys could always defend. That much was never in doubt. That they have managed to hold their own over the past month and stand firm while all around them has crumbled to dust is testament to their credentials as two of the finest corner backs in the game. That being said, a bit of protection in front of them doesn’t go astray either. On Sunday, for the first time in a very long time, that protection came in spades. With fifteen minutes gone on the clock and Cork three points in arrears, Conor Lehane, so often the lightning rod for any criticism pertaining to work-rate and the likes, burst himself to get a hook in on Jack Fagan. Seamús Harnedy followed up soon after with a block to force a side-line and stymy the Waterford attack. Cork scored the next three points, before Connolly pounced for the goal.
Later in the game, Fagan made a beeline for goal, only to be crowded out by a posse of red bodies. How often has that not been the case? Remember when another Waterford half-back, Callum Lyons, sauntered through on goal two years ago without so much as a sideways glance from the Cork defenders. Among the masses in this instance was Shane Kingston, another of our half-forwards so often singled out for his dereliction of defensive duties. Simple things I know; facets of the game that at this level, should hardly be worthy of adulation. “That’s your job”, as Keane would say to dismiss such basic necessities. He’d be right too of course; that is their job. Maybe, the penny might finally have dropped. And certainly not before time.
Perfecting that blend between artistry and attrition, between the fancy and the fundamental, has often been decried as the root of all Cork’s evils. In the wake of Sunday, the Hoggy Conundrum now acts as the absolute embodiment of this clash of doctrines. It is an unescapable truth that at thirty-four, Patrick Horgan, the once in a generational talent that has carried Cork’s attack for almost a decade and a half, is incapable of providing the pace and physicality that is now required over seventy minutes of high-octane championship hurling. In all honesty, he probably never was, only that his cerebral genius and mercurial wrists more than compensated for shortcomings elsewhere. After his goal against Galway in the league back in March, Horgan put his finger to his lips, the universally accepted signal that, in his eyes at least , the doubters had been silenced. The sad reality is, however, that you can’t shush Father Time.
Not many managers would have whipped a player that had just etched himself into the record books as the top scorer in the 135-year history of the championship. Fewer still would have replaced him with a half-back. And while it is fair to say that Kieran Kingston won’t be welcomed down in Quinlans, the Groves or any of the other public houses dotted around Blackpool for quite a while, his call unquestionably paid dividends. The redeployment of Tim O’Mahony in the full-forward line alongside Alan Connolly offered a new dimension to Cork’s attack and perhaps now, the circuitous route to goal, and all the hazards that it brings, may no longer be seen as the only viable option. While Cork’s short game has been vociferously admonished over the past few weeks, it must be remembered that Limerick’s style of play isn’t all that dissimilar. In being able to launch ball in on top of Gillane or Hayes however, Limerick can keep the opposition guessing and the execution of their short game is all the easier for it. Until now, Cork haven’t had that luxury.
Okay, let’s not get carried away here. O’Mahony is no Hayes, in the same way that Connolly is no Gillane. And Tipp, despite three defeats from three, are no daws. The problems that existed prior to Sunday, within this Cork team and within Cork hurling in general, have not dissipated into the summer air and a victory up in Thurles will undoubtedly call for a doubling-down on the basics that secured a crucial two points down in Walsh Park last weekend. Further tinkering – to personnel, positions or playing style may also be required. In three games so far, we’ve replaced our full-back, our centre-back, our midfield pairing and possibly now, even our talismanic free-taker. You’d have to wonder how many more in-flight repairs we can afford to make as we approach higher altitude.
You get the feeling that we are making it all up as we go along. But for now at least, that we are still going along is the only thing that matters.