Cork's famous five
IT'S probably the last thing Jimmy Barry Murphy wants to be reminded of as he ponders the imminent championship, but for, the last five decades, Cork have been in the All-Ireland hurling final in every year ending in six.
All five - four have been won - haven been notable events. Quite frequently, Cork were outsiders and went on to upset the odds, but there were also other significant elements in each year.
Fifty years ago, the most successful era in the county's hurling history reached its peak. The defeat of Kilkenny in a 10-goal final represented Cork's fifth title in six years and the last the team were to win before breaking up.
The final was also distinguished by a decisive performance from Christy Ring, who captained the side, while Jack Lynch established his likely all-time record of six successive All-Ireland medals - having won a football title the previous year.
Ten years later Cork lost a final against Wexford, remembered for Art Foley's save from Ring who was playing his last All-Ireland final. The county wasn't to win Munster for another 10 years - the longest fallow period in their history.
When that gap was bridged, a remarkably young team emerged to win both provincial, and national championships. Long odds against Kilkenny in the 1966 final, Cork pulled off a major surprise in a match which featured three goals from full forward Colm Sheehan.
Wexford were favourites in 1976, having murdered All-Ireland champions Kilkenny by 17 points in the Leinster final and beaten Galway after a replay in the semi-final. In fact, the final was to be the start of a Cork three-in-a-row as the team calmly overcame a whirlwind start by Tony Doran's men to win by four points.
A decade ago, Cork once more entered a final as underdogs. Their semi-final against Antrim had been unimpressive whereas Galway had destroyed League champions Kilkenny. The build-up to the match was marked by an inordinate amount of mind games with Cork coach Johnny Clifford and, less wittingly, the Mayor of Galway getting involved in the rarely practised business of enhancing Cork self-esteem.
Cork 7-5, Kilkenny 3-8
CON MURPHY: Full back on the Cork team, he had already won three All-Ireland medals in various defensive positions. After playing career he was secretary of the Cork county board and President of the GAA, 1976-79.
The team could have been chasing six All-Irelands, but a surprise defeat by Tipperary in 1945 spoiled the sequence. In 1946, the team was at its peak and is described by Willie John Daly as the "greatest Cork team I ever saw, a perfect blend of experience and youth". The 1947 final was also against Kilkenny and considered one of the greatest ever. Cork were beaten, however, and the team began to break up.
"There was a high standard at the time," says Murphy. "We played Kilkenny in both 1946 and `47. It looks like we ran away with it in `46, but a minute before half-time it was very tight. Even in the second hall, Terry Leahy got two goals (for Kilkenny and scored the late, winning point a year later) and it was only in the last 10 minutes that Cork pulled away."
Central to the team's performance was captain Christy Ring's display at centre forward. Aside from scoring 2-4, the goals both being of a spectacular nature, he moved the ball around with perceptive aplomb.
"Up to that point," Murphy remembers, "Christy Ring was regarded as a very good player on a very good Cork team. From `46 on, he was seen as a match-winner in his own right. He played on Shem Downey and then Dan Kennedy. Every ball and player he mastered.
"Playing in the full-back line, I could read the whole thing and began to see us getting on top, midway through the second hall, and remember feeling that scores would come. Also, we weren't under any pressure at the back."
Wexford 2-14 Cork 2-8
WILLIE JOHN DALY: Centre back on the Cork team, he had played in the half-forward line during the three successive All-Irelands of 1952-54.
Cork had replaced seven of the three-in-a-row team whereas Wexford were at their peak, having won a first All-Ireland since 1910 the previous year. The match had to be postponed by a few weeks because of a polio outbreak in Cork city, which also affected the football final between Galway and Cork.
The teams had attracted a record attendance of 84,856 which still stands. Two years later, the number wasn't far short at 83,096, the second largest crowd at a hurling final.
"They were powerful, strong men," says, Daly, of Wexford, very special players. They were also wonderful sportsmen, a pleasure to play against. I'd never have excuses, they were better than us. Once Nicky Rackard scored a second, great goal, it was over. I suppose the save by Art Foley from Ringy's strike inspired them. Not all of us played up to scratch, though."
The essential business of the match took place in the last 10 minutes. Having led by seven points at one stage, Wexford were hauled back by a Christy Ring-inspired Cork recovery. Ring then put Cork ahead for the first time and a minute later drew the save from Foley.
Whether the save conforms to all the legends it spawned or not, it was sufficiently impressive for Ring to shake hands with the Wexford keeper as soon as the ball was cleared. Sportsmanship was reciprocated at the end of the match when Ring was chaired off the pitch by Bobby and Willie Rackard.
From the time of the save, Nicky Rackard took over. Willie Rackard writes movingly in Brendan Fullam's Hurling Giants of how alcoholism thickened his brother from a lithe, athletic central player into a burly full forward. The prospect of Wexford's success had helped Nicky Rackard renounce and in the twilight of his career, he was an indispensable part of the All-Ireland victories.
His physical strength and the power of his shooting compensated for loss of fitness and speed. In 1956, he scored 1-3 in the last eight minutes of the final to transform Cork's narrow lead into a comfortable win for Wexford.
It was the end of Cork for a decade. Willie John Daly remembers the aftermath. "We went in `57 to New York with Wexford and then we were beaten in the championship by Waterford. The reaction was to drop about eight of the team which was probably too much. We played Wexford in Enniscorthy in `48 and thought then the potential was there. In 1956 they proved we were right."
Cork 3-9 Kilkenny 1-10
GERALD McCARTHY: Wing forward and captain of Cork in 1966. He is the only player to captain both senior and under-21 All-Ireland winners in the same year. He went on to win another four medals in 1970, `76, `77 and `78.
"Every year, it was a procession to Limerick to lose to Tipperary by big margins. There was a lot of gloom around Cork hurling caused by defeat and there was an awful lot of pressure on teams every year."
Gerald McCarthy's memories of Cork in the early I960s indicates that the levels of depression surrounding the senior team. In 1966, one occurrence defined the summer for Cork and the other Munster counties.
"There was one major event," he says.
"Limerick beat Tipp (then All-Ireland champions) in the Athletic Grounds (now Pairc Ui Chaoimh). This had the effect of opening up the championship and all the other counties thought they were in with a chance.
"We got another break immediately. In the first round against Clare, a lucky goal got us a replay. Just in McCarthy took a free on the right, drove it hard and a back half stopped it, but diverted it past his keeper."
Once reprieved, Cork didn't look back and easily won the replay before disposing of Limerick and Waterford. All-Ireland opponents Kilkenny were widely expected to be the real beneficiaries of Tipperary's early exit. They had already beaten Cork twice that year.
"Kilkenny were the hottest of favourites," says McCarthy, "and that took the pressure off us. A lot of genuine Cork followers recognised the talent in the team but knew we were young. Five of us were under-21s, we'd nothing to lose."
McCarthy's captaincy arose because his club, St Finbarr's, were county champions. Earlier in the year, however, he had lost his place on the team for a match, also against Kilkenny, at the Wembley tournament and the captaincy switched to club mate Peter Doolan. By the time the final came around, McCarthy had long nailed down his selection.
"It was a very hard, dogged affair," he says of the final. "There was no classical hurling and we didn't get much time on the ball. I think Kilkenny were two (points) up at halftime after playing with a strong wind. We were very, very happy with that.
"Once we got a goal in the second hall, we started to believe that we could win. Lots of teams have faltered in sight of the finishing line, but that was one of the most determined teams I played in."
The day had started ominously for Cork when Denis O'Riordan failed a fitness test. Mick Walters was drafted in with Jerry O'Sullivan switching to centre back.
"It was an upsetting little thing," recalls McCarthy, "but the most memorable thing for me happened on the trip to Croke Park from the Lucan Spa hotel. It had never happened on the way to previous games. Someone started singing and everyone joined in, a sing-song all the way to the All-Ireland final. It cooled the nerves."
By the end of the match, the din of Cork supporters was so great that GAA President Alf Murray had to abandon his speech and McCarthy's was unable to be heard.
For all their youth, the Cork team didn't come again. McCarthy says they learned the hard lessons after winning an All-Ireland, rather than the more conventional, other way. around. By the time the county won again, four years later, the team had changed substantially.