Backroom know-how provides useful ballast for Cork
Compared to the Rebels, Clare very light in terms of experience of All-Ireland final day
Brian Murphy of Cork, the only player in tomorrow’s starting line-ups with experience of playing in an All-Ireland final. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Statistics are invaluable for ordering our thoughts about the past but in hurling, the most traditional of games, they can also become predictive as the weight of what’s gone before can become exhausting for those trying to break free of historical assumptions.
Tomorrow Cork hurlers arrive in Croke Park fortified by comforting data. For instance, only once in 86 years – and more to the point, in 33 All-Ireland finals – has the county lost an All-Ireland final to anyone except Kilkenny and that was the 1956 epic against Wexford.
Clare are well placed to resist the pressure of historical inevitability. Largely composed of two under-21 winning teams who beat Kilkenny in All-Ireland finals and managed by David Fitzgerald, who played in the county’s great era of the 1990s when they beat all of the big three, they have no reason to blink at the sight of a red jersey.
The edge for Cork may however be more practical than that. Despite Fitzgerald’s three All-Irelands as a player and the experience of taking Waterford to a final five years ago, Clare’s sideline is very light on experience compared to their opponents.
Between Jimmy Barry-Murphy and his selectors, Ger Cunningham, Johnny Crowley, Kieran Kingston and Seánie McGrath there is the collective experiences of 27 senior All-Ireland finals – 19 of which were won. Even team doctor Con Murphy has amassed 24 days of duty between football and hurling.
The last team to have lifted the MacCarthy Cup with no experience of winning All-Irelands was Wexford in 1996 and their manager then, Liam Griffin, nonetheless believes that Cork’s vast assemblage of big-day expertise is an advantage.
“I think it’s huge. At the end of the day, a team is in the hands of its management both in preparation and reacting on the day – the ability to read a game, to have plan A and plan B. It makes a difference because when a game gets away from you on a big day in Croke Park, you won’t get it back.”
That experience he believes is particularly important for teams who are new to senior finals, which covers all of tomorrow’s starting players with the sole exception of Cork’s Brian Murphy.
“It’s a challenge because the occasion starts to get bigger than the match and players can lose focus. So you embrace the whole occasion, make it even bigger than it is and then gradually bring it back down.
“Again it’s up to management. Discuss all of the trappings – this will happen, that will happen – and emphasise that the chance mightn’t come again because if by Monday morning you haven’t done your best, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.
“The only way to do it was to plan everything. We stood to attention meeting the president. I’d a feeling Limerick wouldn’t complete the parade and try and put pressure on us to break away too and follow them so we didn’t; we decided we’d go the whole way with it.”
Griffin’s challenges included playing half the match against Limerick a man short after the first-half dismissal of Eamonn Scallan.
“I was amazed how it all came together,” he says of the preparations. “The one thing that took me by surprise was that one of the players was overly fired-up and I had to pull him back and try and calm him down because he had lost his focus. He was too wound up.”
If All-Ireland final planning is about preparing to shoulder the burdens of the past, protocols and emotion the day itself also has longer-term implications. Former Cork All-Ireland winner John Considine succinctly expresses what’s at stake for the future.
“It’s a very important game for both sides. A win will mean that the victorious county will have All-Ireland medal winners in their team for the next 10 years. It will sustain them. They will have built up some hurling capital to draw on over the coming years.”
Seventeen years ago Griffin was alive to this very point and prepared accordingly.
“It was the plan that if by the end of the game we could, we’d bring on a young lad with years ahead of him (19-years old Paul Codd) to carry the burden for the coming generation. We felt we had to think of the future because I’d watched us lose our past.
“Between the years when I was five and 18, Wexford were in half the All-Irelands played but by 1996 we hadn’t been in one for nearly 20 years and hadn’t won one for nearly 30. We wanted to make sure there was someone to carry the torch for as long as possible.”
Barring a draw, by tomorrow evening one of the competing counties – average ages Cork 24.2 and Clare 23.2 – will light the autumn skies for some time to come.