Intriguing history reaches unforgettable climax
Cork and Clare have shared many significant days in the past four decades but next Sunday is for keeps
They’re here because they’re here. The unfolding of the All-Ireland hurling championship has brought us to a final between Cork and Clare that was entirely unforeseen at the start of the summer. Three months ago with Kilkenny and Tipperary contesting the league title, there was little sign that a transformative season was about to begin.
It’s very difficult to rewind and relive the consensus of May after weeks of scintillating weather and glorious breakthroughs. Before the Munster championship Cork were available at 16 to 1 to lift the Liam MacCarthy and Clare even more distant at 22 to 1.
It’s safe to say very few if any All-Ireland pairings have ever emerged in September trailing that degree of unlikelihood.
Now that the final has arrived it’s how it happened and preliminary conclusions can be drawn. For the most part they are positive: the cultivation of talented young hurlers – Clare’s through an increasingly productive development system and Cork’s through engagement in the Fitzgibbon Cup – and their emergence at the highest level of the game.
There is one distinction that makes this year’s All-Ireland unique. Although it is by no means the first intra-provincial pairing – it’s the fifth, counting last year’s Leinster final renewal between Galway and Kilkenny – it is the first in which the contestants hadn’t previously met in their provincial final.
Novelty between the counties is, however, strictly defined because their relationship has been one of the hinges of the Munster championship in the past 40 years. Their rivalry this year that has seen Clare win three times between pre-season competition and league matches, including a relegation play-off before they were defeated in championship.
Cork’s defeat of favourites Clare in June gave David Fitzgerald’s team more to do to reach the final and the two counties symbolically eliminated both of last year’s All-Ireland finalists, Kilkenny and Galway, from the championship in the quarter-finals.
There used to be a popular theory amongst those searching for the neutrinos in Ger Loughnane’s hurling universe and it ran like this. As a player he was a prominent presence in a Clare team that won National Leagues but couldn’t crack the Munster championship, coming out narrowly second-best to the great Cork three-in-a-row team in two provincial finals.
Consequently, it was speculated, Loughnane’s almost wilful disregard for the league (apart from reaching the 1995 final) while his team became a championship force constituted a rejection of the spring competition’s false dawns.
In the context of the relationship between the counties the mid-1970s were notable for Cork man Justin McCarthy’s coaching work in Clare, a significant plank in the platform underpinning the county’s rise at the time.
Cork for their part have reason to regard warmly the modern tradition with Clare. The counties’ four most recent meetings in Munster finals – 1999, ’86, ’77 and ’76 – have been won by Cork en route to All-Ireland success and you have to go back farther than 40 years to 1972 to break that sequence.
When Clare, for all of the fury and at times spite that passed between the county and Tipperary in the late 1990s, look back at those great years they can more easily identify the milestones of that journey by reference to Cork.
In 1995 the semi-final in the Gaelic Grounds was the launch pad for that most memorable of summers. Seán McMahon ‘making himself useful’ with a broken collarbone at corner forward because there were no more replacements and forcing the line ball from which Ollie Baker clipped in the winning goal and Frank Lohan making a late critical intervention to prevent a score at the other end.
Clare powered on to make it their summer. Afterwards outgoing Cork manager – the late, redoubtable Johnny Clifford on his last tour of duty – had a lengthy conversation in the abandoned Mackey Stand with Jimmy Barry-Murphy.
A couple of months later JBM took over the Cork job and served a long and arduous apprenticeship, which led incrementally from the horrors of a home thrashing by Limerick a year later through two successive defeats by Clare in 1997 and ’98 to the Promised Land in ’99 when they beat Clare and added an All-Ireland.
Ninety-eight was particularly hard. Weeks after thrashing Clare in the NHL semi-final and adding the league title, Cork marched innocently into no-man’s land in a Munster semi-final and were pounded to dust. With the match settled but not over, Loughnane prowled down the touchline in Semple Stadium. The Clare crowds rose in acclamation as in an ancient Roman triumph.
The years to come were Cork’s – three All-Irelands in seven years – but matches with Clare still had significance. The All-Ireland semi-final of 2005 showcased John Allen’s clarity on the sideline when he replaced incumbent All Stars Brian Corcoran and Ronan Curran in a late throw of the dice to repel Clare.
The following year, the ludicrous ‘Semplegate’ incidents hobbled Cork with insupportable suspensions for the Munster championship.
Yet, despite all that has gone before, the two counties will never have played a more important fixture than is due next Sunday – a match that will live longer in the memory of the winning county than any of its predecessors