A few weeks back, on a Friday night, John Meyler took himself down to watch Sarsfields play Glen Rovers in a county league game. It was in the middle of the good weather and it was something to be at. It was tight enough early on but Sars went to town in the second half and nobody was counting by the end.
Somewhere along the way, Meyler looked over into the ball alley. It had two figures in there, both striking away, aiming for the black dot, aiming again. One of them was a 10-year-old kid, concentrating, trying his best. The other was Patrick Horgan. Doing the same.
“That’s who he is,” says Meyler. “It was just a Friday night, his club were playing a league game out on the pitch and he came along to support them. But he wouldn’t dream of going along without his hurley and his ball and doing a bit in the alley. And it didn’t matter that it was a 10-year-old kid beside him, he just got in and practised away the same as if it was one of the Cork seniors.
“You’re talking about someone with total dedication to his craft. He lives with a ball in his hand. I don’t like using the word professionalism about amateur players but it’s the best word for how he goes about his approach to hurling. It’s not just putting in the hours, it’s doing it in the smartest way possible.
“If training is at 7.30, he’s there at 5.30, throwing down five balls and running out to them, turning and putting them over the bar and then moving to a different part of the pitch and doing it again. There have been so many times that I’ve seen him score a point on a Sunday and I’ll go, ‘Aw, I saw him do that on Tuesday night, alone on the pitch an hour and a half before training started.’ That’s how he has stayed at the top for so long.”
Horgan made his debut in 2008, coming in on the tail of the last great Cork team and ploughing on through the aftermath of its break-up. This will be his eighth All-Ireland semi-final and so far he's only made it to the final once. Nobody in the history of Cork hurling has played for longer without winning an All-Ireland medal.
Yet despite all the years of disappointment and torment, nobody has ever hung the weight of Cork’s failures around Horgan’s neck. If anything, the reverse is true. A Cork All-Ireland at this stage would be seen as the rest of the county finally giving him the help he needs to win the one his career deserves.
The pure numbers of it all give a sense of Horgan's place in the game. In the past fortnight, he has become the leading point-scorer from play in the history of the championship. He has raised 138 white flags from play since 2008, pushing him four clear of Joe Canning and five above Eddie Keher, John Mullane and Henry Shefflin. As far as overall totals go, he's still 46 points short of Canning. Absent injury or retirement, Horgan will presumably move into the top spot at some point next summer.
In the history of the All Stars, only Mullane has more than Horgan's four statues without an All-Ireland medal to go alongside. In the past decade, Horgan is one of only three forwards to win an All Star without making it to an All-Ireland semi-final, a feat he managed in 2019. The others are Mullane and Damien Hayes. His standards have only ever risen.
"The year we had Doug Howlett in with us in 2019, Hoggie was in his ear the whole time looking for information," says Meyler. "He is mad into other sports, especially the NFL obviously. And in Howlett, he could see a guy who had made it to the very top of professional sport, who was the All Blacks' all-time leading try-scorer. He loved having him on board and he spent a lot of time with him, looking for ideas. 'What can I do to improve? How can I get better?'
“And Howlett gave it back to him in spades because he could see a kindred spirit there. I remember him telling him one time that he used to go out after training on a Thursday and catch 100 garryowens so that when Saturday came and the Aussies tried to pick on him, he wouldn’t even have to think about it. It was that sense of perfection really, that idea of replicating what you’re doing in training in a match.”
This is Horgan's 14th season. Eight of the ones that have gone before have ended with defeat in Croke Park. He's lost there in every way imaginable. Beaten out the gate by Kilkenny in 2008 and 2010, ground down by Galway in 2012, torched in a replay by Clare in the 2013 final, buried by Tipp in 2014 on a day when he only scored two frees and made a hero out of Darren Gleeson in the Tipperary goal.
Probably the worst of all was Limerick in 2018, a game Cork led by six with eight minutes left on the clock. That All-Ireland semi-final went into lore because of what it ultimately meant for Limerick – Nickie Quaid's save, Shane Dowling's penalty, the subsequent end of the famine in the final.
But on the other side of that ledger was a Cork team that led for a half an hour of the second half and were only caught in the third minute of injury-time. Quaid’s save was monumental precisely because it denied Meyler’s team passage to the decider. The final found a Galway side running on fumes trying to defend their title. Who’s to say Cork and Horgan wouldn’t have dealt with them as readily as Limerick did?
“We gave up seven single points in a row,” says Meyler. “And afterwards, everyone is going, ‘Why didn’t you do x, y and z to stem the flow?’ But Limerick drove on and fair play to them. You have to take those opportunities when they come.
"He comes back looking for more. That's a sign of the guy, it's a sign of his mental toughness. There's no doubt about it, it gets harder every year. Anthony Nash is gone this year. Conor Lehane is gone, Christopher Joyce is gone. But then there are young players who have come in who will go another 5 per cent because Hoggie is there.
“Of course they want to do it for the team and for themselves. But they want to do it for him too. So that’s a huge energy within that group. If Hoggie tells you to run harder, you will do it.”
The question is, how far can all the hard running bring them? Cork have fallen at this fence so often in Horgan’s career that it has to be in their heads somewhere. If they kept losing finals, it would be one thing. But regularly failing to reach them is a sure sign that most of the teams he has gone there as a part of have been flawed.
In that respect, the fact that this is a newish breed can only be a positive. Of the team that started that last All-Ireland semi against Limerick in 2018, half have since moved on. In the subs that day were Robbie O’Flynn, Jack O’Connor and Tim O’Mahony, all spring-heeled and energetic and vital to the cause three years later. Horgan is 33, still the heartbeat of the attack. Not done yet or anywhere near it.
“Time waits for nobody,” Meyler says. “I said that to Hoggie and to Nash and to all those guys when I was there. Ye need to drive this because time is running out. The condition that Hoggie is in, he can go for another two or three seasons no problem. But the reality is that you start from scratch every year. They might not get back to Croke Park next year. They are there now.
"You have to take the opportunity when it arises. There's no point being happy with progress and getting good experience. You might not get as good a road again. This year Cork had their game against Limerick and played well for bits of it. And got a bye and then got Clare and then got Dublin. That route might not come again. The opportunity isn't next year. It's now."
Nobody knows it better than Patrick Horgan.