Dublin wary as mushrooms sprout in Croke Park

Cork’s hurling championship history is full of sudden and unexpected arrivals

Cork manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy celebrates victory over Kilkenny in the 1999 All-Ireland hurling final. Photo: Tom Honan/Inpho

Cork manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy celebrates victory over Kilkenny in the 1999 All-Ireland hurling final. Photo: Tom Honan/Inpho

 

Clare faced Cork in the 1999 Munster hurling final, a time when the counties’ co-ordinates were unusually set. With two All-Irelands and three Munster titles in the previous four seasons, Clare were the establishment whereas Cork’s gentility had seven years of shabbiness behind it.

If the respective standing in the world had changed however, Cork weren’t accepting the situation as permanent and goalkeeper Dónal Óg Cusack repeatedly shouted at opposing captain Anthony Daly, “27-3, 27-3…” as a reminder of the counties’ respective position on the All-Ireland roll of honour. Within a couple of months it would be 28-3.

Tomorrow afternoon Daly again comes face to face with the eternal presence of Cork hurling. Having taken Dublin to genuinely historic achievement – a first win over Kilkenny in 71 years and a first Leinster title in 52 – Daly once more encounters a buoyant and emerging side under the management of Jimmy Barry-Murphy.

The idea of Dublin contesting such an All-Ireland semi-final on an equal footing is a measure of how far the county has come but at the back of it all, Cusack’s chant – which with three added to either side, 30-6, summarises tomorrow’s differential – is the challenge for a county that hasn’t beaten Cork in the championship for over 80 years.

Tradition is such a powerful force in hurling and of the big three, themselves, Kilkenny and Tipperary who between them occupy nearly three-quarters of the roll of honour, Cork are by tradition the county that comes from nowhere to win championships.

Justin McCarthy is widely known as a coach who in the 1970s and 2000s fashioned ground-breaking successes in Clare and Waterford and had to confront his own county’s aura. But he won his All-Irelands with Cork, both as player and coach.

“They had that saying in (legendary former county trainer) Jim Barry’s time,” he says, “that Cork were like mushrooms, springing up overnight and that was quite evident at the time when I was playing. The spirit of Cork and the tradition of Cork and the way we were reared on great players and teams in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.”

McCarthy ended 1966 as Hurler of the Year, having played a role in one of the famous examples of the genre, the All-Ireland final defeat of a hotly fancied Kilkenny side, which brought the championship back to Cork for the first time in 12 years – the second-longest barren spell in the county’s proud history.

A tradition
Despite this steady apparent erosion of Cork’s status, he says that it had little impact on how players saw their world.

“Even if there was a gap between then and our time we had won a minor in 1964 and four or five of us came through in 1966 so we had good players plus some sturdy men to guide us.

“We never gave up at that time even though Tipp had been dominant in the late-50s and 60s but we’d people like Jim Barry and Johnny Quirke so we were guided and reared on a tradition that Cork could win. This was a help and brought us along.

“There was a fear of Cork too, outside of Tipperary. If we were playing Clare or Limerick or Waterford at that time we’d feel we should beat them quite well. It’s a small influence now because I think the fear of Cork is gone.

“Society has opened up and education has opened up and people are mixing with each other at third level colleges and know one another more. In our day we were very single-minded and very together. If we saw a Tipperary fella in Cork and passed him in the street we’d barely salute him. We would never want to drop our guard. The whole thing is watered down a bit now.”

Behind the apprehension and intimidating tradition, there are practicalities. John Considine, who stepped in as caretaker manager of Cork in the post-strike period of 2009 and also managed the county minors and under-21s, won an All-Ireland medal in 1990, another year that had started with outsider status and neighbours Tipperary as reigning champions.

“These things get legs but when you look at it,” he says. “Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny have won most of the titles between them. Unlike football it’s a smaller pool in any given year. Any of those three is generally going to be competitive.

The panel
“I’m involved with Sarsfields who have four on the panel but we have another four who no-one would be too shocked to see involved. There’s no Henry Shefflin there but a spread of players. Daniel Kearney (current county centrefielder) has a twin brother Willie and growing up there wasn’t much between them. Daniel didn’t play minor but came in at under-21 and Willie’s not a million miles away.”

Considine however believes that the old structure of the championship helped the counties with a tradition of winning their province because for a long time in GAA history the All-Ireland was effectively between the Munster and Leinster champions and the distractions of the qualifiers format had yet to arrive.

His team’s course was set once they defeated Tipperary in a famous Munster final in Thurles.

“Having beaten the previous year’s champions this was an indicator that you were as good as what was there and you weren’t worrying about them coming at you later through the back door.”

But he concedes that a county’s history has to have some impact.

“There is tradition: hold on a second now, Cork have done this before – why couldn’t we do it again? I never worried about being good enough against outside guys because when I had come up, I had the three-in-a-row team coming to my secondary school for my first three years. We were getting half-days every September and thought this was a yearly occurrence.

“Being on the Cork team you felt you were automatically as good as anything on the outside. That might have changed a bit in the meantime but there’s still that sort of tradition: oh, Cork win All-Irelands.”

Four years
After 1990 the county didn’t win another one for nine years. By that stage Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s team were the opposite of mushrooms.

They had been cultivated slowly and painstakingly over four years of trial and incremental improvement so maybe it’s unsurprising that John Browne, corner back on the team, takes a sceptical view of tradition even if they were outsiders for most of their matches including the final, Brian Cody’s first in charge of Kilkenny.

“The whole thing is a bit of a myth. There’s a lot of hurling in Cork and groups develop and come together at different times. We were a mix of players who’d been around for a few years, like my brother Alan, and then others who came through from minor and under-21 teams.

“It took a lot of groundwork but the big thing was that the younger players had won All-Irelands at minor and under-21 and were confident in their own ability.

“JBM let us run free, had the belief to do that and Teddy Owens had us fit. We were under no pressure and had no inhibitions.”

This time around, Barry-Murphy is in charge of a team none of whom have had the luxury of being born with silver medals in their mouths, and with just one surviving senior medallist, Tom Kenny.

A rich crop of talented Fitzgibbon Cup players has helped the underage yield but Considine also acknowledges the role of tradition, the golden thread that stitches together the county’s hurling generations.

“It’s a factor that Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s a link to the golden era. He played on the three-in-a-row team and even, if none of the players probably saw him play, they and particularly the public associate him with an era when Cork would never have been beaten by Dublin and so on.

“He also brought a young team as outsiders to win an All-Ireland in 1999 and, although that presence is intangible, it’s important.

Then there’s the people he has around him, like Seánie McGrath from the more recent era, Ger Cunningham, Kieran Kingston from my era and Johnny Crowley who was there with Jimmy, people who’ve been there and know what they’re at and that’s a big plus for confidence in a team that’s still developing.

“It’s symbolic, particularly for the supporters. There’s an awful lot of hope in the county attached to the fact that Jimmy’s there.”

For Browne the power of the past is as much about how teams play as their historic achievement. But still a positive influence?

“To a certain extent: you had coaches with numerous All-Ireland medals and also older fellas down the club, who weren’t getting overly excited. Go out and play hard and win. That was the big thing in playing for Cork. You go out and play as hard as you can.”

Now and as it always has been.

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