Being a hero is not easy. Long hours, lots of responsibility and for most of them if you hang around long enough you end up becoming the villain.
It was a particularly tough week for heroes in the Munster hurling championship last weekend. Patrick Horgan substituted, Austin Gleeson and Gearóid Hegarty sent off, Tony Kelly… still soaring, but weighted down as ever with the hopes of an entire county.
I was travelling on Sunday, and so sat down on Sunday evening to watch Waterford against Cork back in full, knowing beforehand that Gleeson had already gotten himself sent off for the second time in five games. I had steeled myself to curse his indiscipline, his recklessness.
Within three minutes I could see Niall O’Leary getting stuck into him off the ball. That treatment continued throughout the game. The impression out there is that this hero can be got at, and Cork were determined to test that theory. And of course it becomes a vicious circle. The more he reacts, the more he gets provoked. The more he’s provoked, the more inevitable the reaction.
Maybe Cian Lynch is the one true superhero in this current Limerick team, but Gearóid Hegarty has been doing a pretty good job himself over the last three years
Gleeson was just about the only one of Waterford’s real galacticos to put it up to Cork throughout “the hour”, as so many intercounty GAA match reports might erroneously say… unfortunately for Austin, this really was just an hour, as when his team really needed him he was on the sideline after a second yellow card.
Maybe Cian Lynch is the one true superhero in this current Limerick team, but Gearóid Hegarty has been doing a pretty good job himself over the last three years. Similar to Gleeson, he finds himself targeted by other teams, and too often he has given referees a reason to target him also. But instead of bemoaning his lack of discipline, Limerick fans have rallied around Hegarty – they seethe at the injustices being perpetrated against him, and see in his treatment the hurling world deciding they've had quite enough of this Limerick team.
How long that will last will depend much on how long Limerick can keep winning, and how long it is until his next disciplinary indiscretion. But those medals in the bank are insulating Hegarty from local criticism in a way Gleeson must be envious of.
Patrick Horgan's achievement in becoming the highest scorer in the history of the hurling championship last Sunday is genuinely heroic, but he was whipped off after 45 minutes by Kieran Kingston after a missed free and a couple of heavy touches that could have led to goals. And it's inevitable that he has in recent weeks become a lightning rod for criticism from within and outside Cork.
Tim O’Mahony came on in his place at full forward, showed well for a few balls, made a few timely bursts, and all of a sudden the thing that was holding Cork back was the top scorer in the 135-year history of the All-Ireland hurling championship.
It's hardly Horgan's fault that his team-mates couldn't hang on to the lead he had given them, with his 10th point of that game
This is the way it often ends for heroes. And there will be people, of course, who say that as long as he has not led Cork to an All-Ireland title he can never be considered a true great. The only fly in the ointment is that I was actually there in 2013, at the drawn All-Ireland final between Cork and Clare, when Patrick Horgan won the All-Ireland final for Cork with an outrageous point in injury time.
A combination of factors (a referee playing 30 seconds more injury time than he had originally stated, a poorly-struck wide by a team-mate, and Domhnall O’Donovan hitting what turned out to be his only ever point in championship hurling) contrived to bring it to a replay, but Horgan had done his bit. It’s hardly his fault that his team-mates couldn’t hang on to the lead he had given them, with his 10th point of that game.
And so he’ll probably sit and stew a little this week. He might even be dropped for the game against Tipperary that will decide if Cork get out of the Munster round-robin. But at some stage this Sunday, or at some stage later this summer, Cork will turn again to Horgan, and he’ll be expected to once again do what heroes do.
In the same way that medals insulate Hegarty from criticism of his discipline, maybe that All-Ireland medal, won two weeks after Horgan had nearly won it for Cork, more comfortably insulates Tony Kelly from the slings and arrows of public opinion.
Kelly’s display on Sunday was so luminous, so enthralling to watch, that it should stand as the final word when anyone comes to question what his best position is, or whether it’s bad for Clare to depend so much on one player (even one as extravagantly gifted as TK) – but he can just ask Horgan if he doesn’t believe those questions will ever be asked.
Horgan is bearing the brunt of it now, just as Joe Canning did at times for Galway, and as DJ Carey did in the past. Kelly might do well to have a young Clare tyro, Shane Meehan perhaps, whispering “memento mori” into his ear every now and again. Even our biggest heroes need a reminder of that fact.