Seánie McGrath cautions restraint ahead of Munster hurling final

The current Cork team has evoked comparisons with the former selector’s successful side of 1999

Sunday in Thurles has a whole vault of echoes for Seánie McGrath with Cork back in a Munster hurling final, against Clare. He was part of Jimmy Barry-Murphy's management team when the county was most recently in provincial finals, three and four years ago and during JBM's first coming, all of two decades ago he played a decisive role in winning the last Munster final between the counties in 1999.

That was a coup. Clare had won two of the previous four All-Irelands and were Munster champions. Cork were a coming team, built on under-age success and serving an at times harsh apprenticeship in the championship. This was their first final.

The ultimately decisive score came in the 33rd minute when under Fergal McCormack's dropping ball McGrath – all 5ft 8ins of him – leaped up on the end-line and like a tennis player, one-handed, touched the ball down for Joe Deane to glide into the net and loosen a scoring avalanche before half-time.

Later that season, as All-Ireland success loomed on the horizon, he recalled with some fondness the goal that had played such a big role in Cork’s season.


“At the time I thought it was a peach of a goal, a sneaky goal, and it was completely against the run of play. And it was probably the deciding factor at the end of the day.”

Current side

The current team under

Kieran Kingston

has evoked comparisons with McGrath’s side. Like their predecessors they fielded with five starting debutants in the first championship match and won unexpectedly, similarly defeating


in the Munster semi-final – again in defiance of expectations – and topped it off by beating Clare in the final.

There was also an All-Ireland but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

“Yeah, there are parallels,” says McGrath in his contemporary role as a former player, selector and occasional pundit. “That time Cork introduced a number of young lads that were similar. They tick the Cork box in that they are fast, mobile skilful, confident and cocky – Mark Coleman Shane Kingston.

“I suppose the only difference is that team in ’99 came on the back of players that had won under-21 and minor stuff and this group haven’t but that’s not necessarily a reason Cork can’t be successful this year.”

Clare stand for other things in his career catalogue. Four years ago, as selector, he saw Cork lose a Munster final to Limerick and then despite having beaten them in the provincial semi-final, Clare came to beat them in a replayed All-Ireland final.

Time hasn't quite turned that disappointment into a cherished achievement. Cork were within seconds of winning that All-Ireland thanks to an extraordinary point by McGrath's club-mate Patrick Horgan. A generous helping of additional time was sufficient to encompass Domhnall O'Donovan's famous equaliser.

“One missed,” McGrath recalls. “Big time. It’s with me every day of the week. I’ll take it to the grave with me. Sport – there are games from my own career that I’ll take to the grave and in management that’s one of them.

"I met a journalist coming out of here; he was doing stuff for Fáilte Ireland at the time and he was just mesmerised by Anthony Nash [the Cork goalkeeper, whose balloon lift turned every penalty and 20-metre free into an event] – everything through the year, the penalties and his running up, the 13 on the line.

“There were 13 on line! We counted them. And he clung it into the net.

“There were so many brilliant moments for us that year and we won nothing. We were even relegated that year. For such a brilliant season, to win nothing and be just seconds away, it was just incredible.”

National figure

The replay that year turned a Clare teenager into a national figure. Shane O’Donnell was spirited into the starting line-up and ended up with a hat-trick, setting David Fitzgerald’s team on the road to the Liam MacCarthy. McGrath says that Cork were not blind-sided by the selection. But . . .

“In intercounty management you know everything about every player. The stats are so detailed. Seán O’Donnell is our stats manager and he’s so good you know everything.

“Conor Whelan (Galway) started in 15 as a surprise docket. He’d played an intermediate match for Galway just the week before we played them. As soon as we heard on the morning that Conor Whelan was playing we knew straight away what he was good at: left on top, what hand he was good on; you know everything about a player.

“But trust me. We did not expect 3-3 from the chap (O’Donnell). Fast and mobile, we were worried that we might be opened up. We had Shane O’Neill on him and we thought Shane would keep a rein on him but to be fair to the chap he had one of those days he might never have again and he’s shown aspects of it again. I thought he was very sharp the last day.”

This weekend Cork are back like a cure for the Munster championship, helping to fill Semple Stadium and halt for this year the anxieties about falling crowds in the province. McGrath cautions some restraint.

“But I would say the Cork public aren’t getting too carried away at the same time. They are excited the team is what the Cork public like but they are realistic that it is an outside bet they will win the All-Ireland.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times