When Robbie O’Flynn slung over on 53 minutes last Saturday, the deficit that inexpicably stood at five points at half-time had finally been whittled down to the bare minimum. Galway were on the rack and it appeared to all and sundry that Cork were going to get out of jail. Instead, Galway summoned a defiance that, while not in keeping with their own recent past, is very much in keeping with that of their manager. Five minutes later and the gap was back to four. Historically, Galway rarely win games that they ought to have lost. Conversely, Henry Shefflin forged an illuminous playing career on the back of dragging teams from the precipice of defeat. You’d probably have to go back nineteen years, to the All-Ireland final of ’03, to find a game in which Cork’s profligacy proved so costly. Shefflin helped quash a Rebel revival that day too, eking his side back in front before finding Comerford for the goal, when it seemed as though the tide had finally turned in Cork’s favour. Kilkenny won a game they probably should have lost that day. Galway won a game they definitely should have lost last weekend. Once again, we’ve nobody to blame but ourselves.
We’ve grown accustomed to a certain type of defeat down here. You know the one; when the performance is so listless, the capitulation so pronounced or the chasm in class so vast, that the epitaphs and obituaries come thick and fast. To give the Cork hurlers their due, they rarely do half-measures; when they’re defeated, they really are defeated. Whatever last Saturday was, it wasn’t that. All bitterness and biases aside, the better (admittedly a very low bar) team lost and not too many examples spring to mind where Cork have left a game behind them in such a manner. Not that Galway will care. Nor should they. Their summer will, at the very least, entail a trip to Croke Park, while Cork’s didn’t even see the solstice. And next weekend, when our victors are being eviscerated in an All-Ireland semi-final by Limerick, we will be sat at home, watching on forlornly and thinking to ourselves – that really should have been us.
It was always likely that the meeting between Cork and Galway would answer the age-old paradox – what happens when a very stoppable force meets a very moveable object? Who prevails when two of the most capricious teams in the country go head-to-head? You simply can not rely on Cork, that much we know. But you can never truly hang your hat on Galway either, even with Shefflin at the helm. The undulating form guides of both counties, this summer and in summers gone by, was never going to be conducive to accurate pre-game predictions and there can’t have been too many soothsayers knocking around the Square last Saturday morning who would have envisaged the game panning out in the peculiar manner that it did. Even prior to throw-in, an eerily subdued atmosphere enveloped Thurles. What transpired seconds after throw-in only compounded the feeling that the game wasn’t going to follow a linear trajectory.
In a sardonic twist of fate, Cork found answers in defeat to many of the problems that had plagued them earlier in the summer. For large parts of the game, Cork dominated both their own and Galway’s puckouts, while the solidity of their defence meant that goal chances (so often Cork’s kryptonite) were kept to a minimum. One to be precise. Yet Galway scored two, while at the other end of the field, the Cork forwards spent large portions of the first half making a martyr out of Éanna Murphy. Of all the aspersions cast in the direction of Cork’s attacking sextet down through the years, wastefulness in front of goal has never been one of them. A disdain for donkeywork? Perhaps. An absence of physicality? Sure. But generally speaking, it was thought that if Kingston, Harnedy, Lehane et al were afforded the kind of gilt-edged opportunities so kindly presented to them by Galway, they would duly cause wreck. Alas, it wasn’t so.
And with that, we’re gone, done, finished for another year. The strangeness of Cork’s championship season has been such that we’d have probably have taken a quarter-final exit six weeks ago. Yet, having somehow managed to wriggle our way out of a provincial quagmire, and with the pieces seemingly falling into place as we went, defeat against a distinctly unexceptional side seems so very anticlimactic. Following last year’s All-Ireland final drubbing, there was a certain degree of comfort to be gleaned from the thought that should Limerick ever resume a semblance of mortality and slink back into the pack, Cork were well primed to be the likely usurpers. When the last dynasty started to show signs of dissolution almost a decade ago, Cork weren’t in a position to capitalise on the sudden power vacuum that emerged. Meanwhile, Clare, Galway and Tipp all enjoyed brief interludes as top dogs. The worry now is that if (and it’s a big, overly optimistic if) Limerick do falter some time soon, history will repeat itself and we will be left looking on from the distance once again.
What we do with ourselves now is the question. It used to be the case that in the aftermath of a championship exit, our dejection had only the winter to navigate. In current climes however, even a quarter-final elimination means that a summer of discontent must also be negotiated. Ultimately, the defeat against Galway means that we have been deprived two weeks of discourse comprising all sorts of mental gymnastics in an attempt to concoct a plausible argument in favour of a Cork victory over Limerick. And oh, how we would have relished that! In its place, we are left with the sort of speculative blather that has no place in this world at a time when the kids are still at school – Will Kingston go? Should Kingston stay? What about Dalo? What about Davy?
So what’s another year? A year that initially promised so much and then suddenly so little, before eventually settling somewhere in-between. As has been the case for far too long now, that’s where we still reside. In-between. Not bad but not good enough. No closer and no further from where we want to be.