Cork find spark in cooling embers to catch fire

Mon, Jul 21, 2008, 01:00

LOCKERROOMGoalkeeper and talisman Donal Óg Cusack dismissed . . . Galway's Joe Canning running amok . . . and yet the men in red triumphed. They did it for themselves and all they had stood for, all they had meant to one another. Teams, if they are lucky, have defining days like this one

MENTORS. DRESSINGROOMS. Tradition. Newspapers. Vince Lombardi. Liars all. They tell you you have to care because, well because you have to. Because you wear this colour jersey, because this is your chance, because this is BIG, because everyone else cares.

YOU HAVE TO CARE. YOU GOTTA. Capisce?

The hurlers of Cork will grow old. Not hurling old, as some of them are already, but old. They will have troubles that will make them forget they were ever hurlers; money worries, sick children, bereavements, illnesses, all those trespasses of the real world that turn the boys of summer into the men of winter. They will grow old and separate from each other.

They won't meet a few times a week on a field somewhere and shed the best of themselves for a jersey, a place, a sport, whatever it is that drives them. When they remember though, when sentiment grips them and they beg to dandle grandchildren on their laps and fend off melancholy by telling them something wondrous they will tell them about the Galway game in 2008.

Sport at its most moving and most visceral doesn't have to involve cups or medals or bragging rights. It has to do with a group coming together and sharing experiences until such time as those shared experiences turn them into something else.

On Saturday in Thurles, Cork were written off before their bus pulled in. Beaten dockets. Busted flushes. The rush of compressed air opened the doors of their coach and yesterday's men stepped out into the evening of their twilight. Men now, the hard-core of whom had been boys for JBM's All-Ireland back on the cusp of the new century, they came to be conferred as has beens.

Diarmuid O'Sullivan. Donal Óg. Seán Óg. Joe Deane. Timmy McCarthy. Neil Ronan. Ben O'Connor, they all played together in that greasy final long ago when they beat the Cats and started a battle to decide who would be Frazier and who would be Ali.

Saturday they climbed from the bus with a modest and sceptical crowd of well-wishers ushering them into hurling's homely cathedral. A duty of care rather than fanaticism. Men who had given so much and fought so often were going to their end. As Kilkenny, constantly reinvented and replenished were marching toward the three-in-a-row title belt, Cork were shuffling into oblivion. Beaten by Tipp. Almost beaten by Dublin. About to be pummelled by the Galway of Loughnane and Canning. Irrelevance before death. The worst way for proud men to go.

It unfolded as the greatest drama of the GAA summer, the best of many summers. Two men, two friends from Cloyne, of all places, struggling to hold the boy wonder Canning. The house knowing something was going to give, some rivets were going to pop.

Galway brought just one sharpened blade to the gunfight but it was special. Joe Canning confirmed his greatness in this his maiden season. And if his first goal owed something to the temporary lifting of the steps rule, seeing the boy hold off the man who is Diarmuid Sull and slap the ball fore-handed and cheekily past Donal Óg was the equivalent of Cork's death certificate being drawn up in dayglo graffiti.

Cork weren't going to lose, they were going to be slapped around and they were going to go down ugly. The penalty seemed to wrap up so many strands of Cork hurling life in one short scene. Only time will tell us what exactly to make of it. Donal Óg, by now well on the wrong side of the referee's humour, got his marching orders for waltzing with Alan Kerins without Kerins' say so. Pause for breath. What was going through the minds of a few county board men as they saw the spikiest team in Cork's turbulent history being ribboned and shredded and their totem, their leader, taking the long walk. A championship defeat, yes, but control, complete control of the hurlers back with the blazers?

The kid Canning was sent up to slap the ball home but first history had to have its little one-liner. Back in May 1974, just days after the Dublin bombings, Cork played Waterford in Walsh Park in the Munster championship. Just before half-time, with Cork struggling, Martin Geary of Waterford pulled a ball to the Cork net. Paddy Barry, the Cork goalkeeper, broke his stick in the exchanges and as the umpire, one Jim Kirby of Limerick, stepped up to wave the green flag, Paddy flung away the heavy end of his goalie hurl in disgust and caught the umpire high on the thigh. Paddy became one of the few goalkeepers in memory to be sent off in a championship game. At half-time when Cork reorganised they sent in Martin Coleman of Ballinhassig to mind the nets for his championship debut.

Thirty-four years later just before half-time, Donal Óg got the red card and Cork sent in Martin Coleman of Ballinhassig for his championship debut. Cork lost in 1974 but Martin Coleman went on to better days. On Saturday, his son stepped straight into one of the greatest ever days of Cork sport.

At half-time everyone spoke, but Donal Óg spoke the most passionately. No need to remind them of the abuse he had taken on their behalfs, of the times he had spent with his head above the parapet. No need for Vince Lombardi or Bill Shankly to be exhumed. It was time to see who cared, time to see how deeply this had all mattered, all this time together, all the arms around each other for anthems and the hurleys beating off floors as they punctuated wild, swirling speeches. Time for all to give something and some to give all.

People whose hearts are functionally dead will pick at the second half. Galway had only one forward . . . Loughnane persisted with the sweeper in the full-back line forever . . . the hurling wasn't as pure as it was in that game back in the year dot . . . bad cess to the nit-pickers.

Cork pelted balls into Ollie Canning as he swept up and one wondered would they ever figure out that once upon a time they used to be a possession team and now needed to be again.

Joe Deane, though, what a story and what a man, so occupied the full-back line Canning had to be switched full time to mark him. The new sweeper, Conor Dervan, hadn't the same radar equipment Ollie had. Cork tightened their game. They were in business. Cathal Naughton ran into the spaces. With John Gardiner gone to wrangle the untameable Canning, Ronan Curran stepped it up in the half-back line and became a giant.

There were stunning deeds. When Ben O'Connor landed a sideline cut with just under 20 minutes left to put Cork two ahead he was 45 metres out. Two minutes later, Canning landed a sideline from nearly 20 metres further away to pull it back to one point.

On it went. In the stands we needed fans and smelling salts to keep from swooning at the intensity. Cork played with that urgency that borders on panic, that passion that is almost manic, all heart but a leavening of brain. After Canning's wonderful sideline they thought their way to the next three points.

They worked the ball cleverly around midfield till Naughton found an opening to score. A fine clearance form Coleman found Ben O'Connor, five, six , seven years younger than when he arrived. Ben zoomed into space and scored. A minute later they won a free through patience. Ben cashed it in.

Cork found some ember in their hearts in the almost cold fireplace of their souls and got it roaring. They did it for themselves and all they had stood for, all they had meant to one another. Teams, if they are lucky. have great and defining days like that. Dublin against Kerry in 1977. Offaly in September 1982. For Clare hurlers it wasn't 1995 or 1997 but 1998.

Afterwards in the dressingrooms tears flowed freely. Donal Óg leapt around the tunnel like a cartoon figure. Older men with decades done with Cork teams said it was the day, the greatest day of all.

Gerald McCarthy might have reflected he was playing that day in Walsh Park when Martin Coleman senior came on and was managing Waterford in 1999 when Cork came to Thurles as fresh-faced boys and gave first notice they would be a serious team, blooding six players and beating the Deise by six points.

Donal Óg was among the debut boys that day, a skinny, jumpy presence between the spires, unsure if he had any place in the lineage of great Cork goalkeepers.

Maybe Saturday night will turn out to be the last great deed of the team born that day but McCarthy knew of what he spoke when he placed the win as among the greatest he had ever been involved in. Dr Con Murphy, servant to so many Cork hurling and football teams, pronounced it the sweetest ever. Those who were there were blessed. Those who stayed away will curse forever their muddled priorities. It was a privilege to see great men, be a great team again and to rage, rage and rage once more against the dying of the light.