It has been a troubled spring by the Lee. The Cork hurlers will salute the past tonight by playing in the specially commissioned – and splendid – jerseys worn by their predecessors in 1916.
The all-blue garments with a bold yellow ‘C’ were the official Cork colours a century ago. The jerseys were confiscated by the British army during a raid of the county board offices in 1919 and haven’t been seen since.
Funny, Cork hurling was in the midst of a fallow period then, too, with no All-Ireland title since 1903. Their luck may have turned with the bagging of those jerseys by crown forces as they won that year’s All-Ireland.
That history will swirl this evening as the beleaguered Cork hurling clans turn their attentions to the present-day concerns of hosting their old foes and the standard bearers of the contemporary game.
There is never an easy time to play Kilkenny but the timing could not be worse for Cork. No wins in the league and that word “crisis” zipping about county. In their first three league games under Kieran Kingston, Cork have been a tough read. Flashes of rebellion against Waterford were encouraging. They were, in the main, compliant in the face of a prosaic Galway performance in Salthill. And last Saturday night’s capitulation in Croke Park against Dublin sent a shiver through Cork – city and country.
Shoot the lights out
"I didn't think that performance was in us," admitted selector Pat Ryan afterwards. "I didn't think we were going to come up and shoot the lights out either."
On Monday evening, Donal O’Grady, Cork’s All-Ireland winning manager in 2003, spoke on the radio with Matt Cooper. The conversation turned to the more important subject of where Cork are travelling in the long term rather than what will down against Kilkenny tonight.
O’Grady is one of the sharpest analysts in Gaelic games and not given to emotional forecasts. But both Corkonians struck a blackly comic tone as they spoke about O’Grady’s prediction five years ago that the Rebels would not win an All-Ireland title for a decade.
True, the 2013 side came within seconds of the ultimate triumph during that wonderland All-Ireland final – and replay – against Clare, after a hurling summer when Kilkenny’s hurling rivals celebrated the end of the wicked witch in her black-and-amber guise. But Cork in 2013 were explicable as a rush of form and by the fact Jimmy Barry-Murphy, the manager that year, has a lifetime of form in conjuring something special out of nothing.
Last summer, what proved to be JBM’s final season was characterised by grumblings he was a natural operating in a strategist’s world and that Cork didn’t have the tactical sophistication. He wore the criticism, perhaps too polite to point out that his glittering sporting life was guided by the fundamental tactic of scoring that bit more than the other crowd. And it wasn’t strategy that undid Cork in his final game in charge last summer as much as Galway’s aggression: old-fashioned hunger.
And it will be for that vital sign the Cork crowd will search this evening as their team goes up against the strongest force in the history of hurling; a side for whom ravenous appetite is a pre-requisite.
Kilkenny’s frightening consistency has been confrontational in that they have forced their traditional rivals to try to figure just who the hell they are and where they stand in the contemporary game. Cork hurling is in that place now.
"Cork were always the great innovators," says hurling coach and former national hurling co-ordinator Paudie Butler. "They brought new styles and methods into it and while Cork is a traditional county, Bernie O'Connor, through the twins, brought a whole new style to the whole of Ireland through Cork. That is very recent and they were successful with that method.
“Whether this group of players are able to play that method or whether that time has passed; Kilkenny are certainly the innovators now. It is a changing time for Cork. And like all traditional counties, they are taking their time. They have their own managers at every level. They have never gone outside the county and I don’t think they would ever consider going outside the county.
“But it is very much a changed time in hurling now. The traditional people don’t want the game to get too tight because, you know, the brilliance goes out of it and it becomes too mundane. Yet they want to win. So they are caught in that dilemma. It is a changing time. But I feel that Cork will come back to their strength before too long.”
As the summer of 2014’s championship was distilled into a showdown between Kilkenny and Tipperary, something significant was happening in Cork city. Glen Rovers, 20th-century royalty, were getting it together again at senior level. Their appearance in the the county final brought a sigh of glad nostalgia to the north of the city. The Rovers hadn’t won the Sean Óg Murphy Cup since 1989. It was a big moment. But as it turned out they were obliterated by Sarsfields in that match.
"Absolutely hockeyed," recalls manager Richie Kelleher. "Now, we had had a hard season and Sars were fresher than us in the game. But we didn't let us affect us and we just drove on again. We are from the north of the city and would see ourselves as being that bit tougher. The backbone of that team would be guys in their early 30s and then we had the likes of Stephen McDonnell and Patrick Horgan coming up behind them.
“Both groups would have won minor and under-21 titles coming up. So it was a blend of those teams and for a while maybe players thought it was going to happen for them. But we knuckled down and we got on a bit of a roll.”
The title finally won the following year was down in no small part to Kelleher’s remarkable persistence as a manager and, at least for older generations, Glen Rovers revived memories of when the city game was the beating heart of Cork hurling. The holy trinity of Glen Rovers, St Finbarr’s and Blackrock have won over 80 titles between them. The rivalries – and the crowds they drew – acquired a national reputation. But the winning stopped.
The Barrs have not been county champions since 1993. Blackrock have won three senior championships since 1985, the most recent in 2002. The obvious conclusion is that when the city game thrives, so does Cork hurling. “I think obviously in Glen we would love the city to be awash with hurlers because that would strengthen our club,” says Kelleher.
“But when you look at the big three in Cork traditionally – ourselves, St Finbarr’s and Blackrock won a lot of titles during a time when people came to the city to work from all over the county and they joined one of the three clubs and that helped to make it very strong.
“Na Piarsaigh came on stream in the 1950s. Bishopstown in the southside were founded and they would be close to St Finbarr’s. So the emergence of those clubs probably weakened the big three but not the game in the city. Like, you can see Na Piarsaigh’s pitch from ours. And you have six clubs in the city now.”
A few seasons ago, coaches in Glen Rovers took an inventory of the state of their underage teams. Their teams had begun to struggle in various age categories. “Once we had a look at what was coming through, we saw that there wasn’t a whole pile and alarm bells started to going off. But the club rallied and people put in the groundwork. You mightn’t always get what you want but you have to do it. So city hurling, in my opinion, it is not as strong as it used to be but any time we play the other teams it is 50-50. And we are happy in Glen that we have been competitive again in recent years”
Paudie Butler was working in Cork during the dreamy days when club derbies could match the allure of any Munster championship occasion. Hurling is flourishing in Dublin and his work has contributed to the rise of the game’s popularity in other urban centres. But Cork was the arch example of a thriving city game. Butler accepts that things seem at low ebb right now but he isn’t despondent.
“They are caught up in their own tradition and in transition as well. But it is a big county and there is a lovely generation of hurlers coming through now at minor level. And they will be very good. Some of the former All-Ireland winners are involved with them so I know that people who are with it in Cork know that they are coming, so they are okay. It is the people who don’t realise that who are much more concerned.”
Maybe the minors and the revival of fortunes in Glen Rovers are green shoots. In the short term, there would seem to be plenty to be concerned about.
Last summer's championship exit prompted a passionate call to arms by Dónal Óg Cusack, the former Cork goalkeeper, on The Sunday Game, who used a chart to illustrate Cork's negligible impact at all Munster competitive grades. Righting that will take time. In the meantime, the senior team are the flag-bearers.
As Dublin dropped Cork into a bad place during the first half last week, few could have failed to notice that Eamon Dillon went around Stephen McDonnell as though he were an irrelevance.
McDonnell has been one of Cork’s most dependable and nimble defenders: the moment didn’t make sense. It was the most nakedly obvious sign of the hypothesis Cork people are pinning their hopes to: that the team is knee-deep in a strength and conditioning programme designed to equip them for the championship.
League form can be illusory and from the beginning, Cork have identified their championship meeting with Tipperary as their be-all. Tonight may well be a punishing step on the road to that place.
“There are always hurlers in Cork. We just need to get the balance right” believes Kelleher. “Nobody knows what Cork are doing at the moment– they could be doing heavy gym or field work. You could have been training through games and we don’t know if Cork are in the middle of that or are they just not good enough.
“Nobody knows that only the Cork players and management. I wouldn’t be telling Cork their job. They should be judged on championship day and that’s when they will be judged.”