Cork beginning to see that the future can’t be delayed forever

Waterford defeat has encouraged Pat Ryan and his selectors to place their trust in talented young guns for the potentially season-defining clash with Clare

Patrick Horgan: a peripheral figure against Waterford last Sunday, Cork's veteran forward has been given another chance to impress against Clare. Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho

Fifteen months ago, a few days before Pat Ryan’s first league match as Cork manager, Patrick Horgan was interviewed at a sponsor’s launch.

The previous summer he had been dropped for Cork’s final two championship matches, which meant that questions on any other topic at the media event would be fluff. Horgan had no mind to deflect the matter or smother it in diplomatic language.

In a wide-ranging answer he claimed that he had been “treated unfairly,” that he had been “surprised” to be left out and that he had been given no explanation. Against Galway, in the All-Ireland quarter-final, he came on at half-time once Cork’s free taking had imploded, and after a dull season he produced his best stuff, under duress.

For Ryan, coming in as a new manager, Horgan’s status was a hot-button issue. Was he retiring? Would he be pushed? Neither? By then, Horgan was 34-years-old with 15 championships behind him. Ryan had just led Cork to successive under-20 All-Irelands. Among Cork supporters there was an appetite for freshness and youth. And winning. Winning, mostly.


So, how much change was optimal? At what speed? Where was the sweet spot?

At preseason media events in recent years Horgan had made a habit of declaring that he never felt fitter. It always sounded like a set-piece defence, disarming any questions about his age or inevitable decay. Years ago, Ryan said of Horgan – admiringly – that he didn’t think he would ever “retire”; the implication was that he would keep going as long as he possibly could.

By the time Limerick came to town for Ryan’s first league game in 2023 there was no ambiguity in his mind about Horgan.

“I’m not looking at his age,” he said that week. “If he’s going well enough for us, if he can do a job for us, he’ll be starting on our team. I think it’s very disrespectful where fellas are constantly asking fellas who are a certain age – ‘When are you going?’ If he’s a sub, he’s a sub. If he’s starting, he’s starting. That should be same for everybody. He’s cool with that.”

In last year’s championship, Ryan’s judgement was vindicated. Horgan was Cork’s top scorer from play. On a hot day in the Gaelic Grounds he scored a staggering 1-14 against Limerick, including 1-3 from play – equalling what he had scored from play against Clare a week earlier.

Pat Ryan: has made six changes to Cork's line-up for the game against Clare in the aftermath of the opening Munster championship defeat to Waterford. Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho

As long as Horgan stayed, though, the question was bound to resurface. This year he hasn’t recaptured last year’s form. Last Sunday, he was peripheral. Against Waterford in the league he had four possessions; last Sunday he had three possessions; no score from play; no tackles. Cork were adamant that not enough ball was sent to their inside forwards. Horgan has been given another chance against Clare on Sunday. He knows the score.

The biggest challenge for Ryan when he took the job was to manage transition and how to pace it. In some respects, the circumstantial evidence was an enemy of that process. Cork have contested five of the last six under-20/21 All-Ireland finals and won three of them; this year’s under-20 team were minor champions three years ago. Among the Cork public patience was wearing out.

When Horgan, Seamus Harnedy, Conor Lehane and Damien Cahalane were all picked to start last week, though, the optics were skewed. People wondered where the young players were? Jackie Tyrrell asked that question, accusingly, on The Sunday Game.

The inconvenient answer was hidden in plain sight. Of the 26 players who togged out for Cork in Walsh Park, 18 of them had played in at least one of those under-20/21 finals. Nine of that cohort were starters last Sunday; this weekend, that number swells to 12.

When you broaden the lens, 55 different players started in those under-20/21 finals, stretching back to 2018: 21 of them have since played senior championship for Cork; a further 11 have appeared in the league. The question is not, “Where are they?”; the question is, “What have they done?”

Cork celebrate victory over Tipperary in the 2021 Munster championship final at Thurles. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The clamour for change intensified as soon as the final whistle blew in Walsh Park. In local race memory, the years when extravagant change worked spectacularly for Cork has obliterated all the years when it was a catalyst for nothing.

When Cork surged from the middle of the pack to reach the 2013 All-Ireland final, for example, there were essentially six newcomers on the team; when they won the 1999 All-Ireland final there were six debutants for the first round. On Thursday night Cork made six changes.

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was on the 1999 team, having made his debut as a teenager three years before. At the beginning of that summer Cork were in a hole much deeper than the one they find themselves in now.

“If truth be known,” he says, “Jimmy [Barry-Murphy, Cork manager] had no other option. We played Tipp in a challenge game behind closed doors [before the first round of the championship] and they absolutely hammered us out the gate of Páirc Uí Chaoimh. It was so embarrassing they called the game off with about five minutes to go.

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín: 'Coming out of under-20 now you’re going to need another two or three years to get up to the physicality of senior hurling.' Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“I’d imagine in Jimmy’s head he was thinking, ‘How low can we go?’ He had no one coming back from injury or working abroad or other commitments. It was a gamble [to throw in so many young players together] but that was all he had. Pat [Ryan], in ways, is probably at the crossroads Jimmy was at back in ‘99. But, having said that, the difference is I still think a lot of the current players in the 25-to-30 year age bracket can do a job.”

Ó hAilpín has been involved with UCC for the last six years, first with the Freshers and now with the Fitzgibbon Cup team. In that environment many of the young players who played in the under-20/21 finals for Cork in recent seasons have crossed his path. He senses the impatience around the place, some of which is twitchy and unreasonable.

“Can you honestly pick a load of fellas from the under-20s team last year and throw them in at senior level? That 20-year-old is coming up against players who have maybe five or 10 years of strength training behind them. You could do it back when I was playing because, as a rookie, you could survive on speed and skill. When I went into the Cork set-up [in 1996] the senior players weren’t lifting weights. They’d laugh at you. It just wasn’t a thing.

“The game is more attritional now, there’s way more contact. Back then, when you were tackling, you let him take his steps and you waited until he threw up the ball – that was the tackle. It was a hook or a block or a flick. You didn’t have to go through three fellas – there was none of that. Coming out of under-20 now you’re going to need another two or three years to get up to the physicality of senior hurling.”

Gary Keegan: the most influential performance coach in Irish sport has been involved in Cork's preparations for championship, mainly through periodic workshops. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

At the end of last season Cork reflected on where they needed to go and what they needed to do. One urgent conclusion was that they needed to be fitter.

Ian Jones, with a background in rugby and NFL, was appointed as their new strength and conditioning coach. As soon as Cork players were eliminated from their club championships last autumn, Jones provided them with a preseason programme.

Ryan also turned to Gary Keegan, the most influential performance coach in Irish sport over the last 20 years – from Olympic boxing to Dublin football to Tipperary hurling to Leinster rugby to Irish rugby and a host of other interventions. In 2017, when Kieran Kingston was Cork manager and Ryan was part of his management team, Keegan agreed to help Cork and his impact that season was transformative.

His involvement with the Irish rugby team meant that Keegan’s contact with the Cork players this time round has been in workshops, dotted through their schedule. On a week like this, though, he’s priceless.

In their end of season review Cork identified patterns that were killing them. In last year’s championship they kept conceding punitive leads. Against Clare they trailed by eight, against Limerick by seven, against Tipperary they suffered a nine-point swing; in one of those games they recovered to force a draw, the other two they lost by a point. Burning that much energy in comebacks made winning much harder.

Diagnosis, though, is not a cure. At the beginning of this year’s league they trailed Clare by eight points and lost by a goal; trailed Kilkenny by nine points, lost by a point. Last Sunday, they fell seven points behind, drew level, lost by goal. In that trend there is no future.

During the league Ryan kept saying that that Cork were building a deeper panel, two players for each position. His trust in that process was reflected in Thursday night’s convulsive team selection. Will this be the trigger?

The future can’t be delayed forever.