Tangled up in blue and yellow
GETTING to an All-Ireland final wouldn't have been regarded as a realistic target for the Cork hurlers at the start of the season.
Aside from having to cope with a few retirements and player defections from the 2012 squad, team boss Jimmy Barry-Murphy and his co-selectors Johnny Crowley, Kieran Kingston, Seanie McGrath and Ger Cunningham weren't exactly flavour of the month in some quarters after they opted to dispense with the services of a couple of seasoned stalwarts prior to the league campaign.
Needless to say, their critics were in full cry after Cork were demoted in the league, with a number of pundits suggesting that JBM was going nowhere with this particular group of players. Yet, they had performed creditably in the majority of the games, trouncing Tipperary in the opening round at Pairc Ui Rinn, sharing the spoils with both Waterford and Galway on the road, and running Kilkenny to two points in Round 5 at Nowlan Park.
Their form overall was no more inconsistent than any other in Division 1A where the margins between qualifying for the play-offs and being involved in a relegation play-off were wafer-thin in the end.
Cork's only poor display in the group stage came against Clare at Pairc Ui Rinn where they shipped an eight-point thrashing from Davy Fitzgerald's side. As things transpired, rivalry was renewed with the Banner in the relegation final, and again Clare prevailed in a contest that went to extra-time.
It would be fair to say, however, that Cork were flattered to be level at the end of regulation time, given that Clare were extremely wasteful during the 70 minutes, accumulating 24 wides, 12 more than the Rebels.
JBM pointed out afterwards that Cork hadn't done much work on their fitness-levels for the league, suggesting that this was the main reason why they had failed to go the distance in both encounters with Clare.
Whether or which, Cork were firmly cast in the role of the underdog when they squared up to Clare, victors over Waterford in the opening round, in the Munster semi-final, particularly since they had been hit by an injury-crisis that forced the management to start without Paudie O'Sullivan, ruled out for the season with a cruciate injury, Lorcan McLoughlin and team skipper Pa Cronin.
It proved to be a day of vindication for the mentors, whose decision to restructure the defence before the start yielded rich dividends, not least because of the manner in which the experienced Brian Murphy curbed the influence of Clare's talismanic centre forward Tony Kelly.
Handing a championship debut to Seamus Harnedy at wing-forward paid off handsomely as well, with the St Ita's clubman embellishing a workmanlike display with three points.
Wing back William Egan, midfielder Daniel Kearney and full forward Patrick Horgan were others to make especially generous contributions as Cork advanced by 0-23 to 0-15, not to mention 'keeper Anthony Nash, who, in making three superb saves and converting a couple of frees from distance, was certainly one of the chief architects of Clare's demise.
While the result opened all sorts of possibilities in a season that hadn't promised a whole lot, there were aspects of the Clare game that made it easy to keep a lid on expectation levels.
The fact was that Clare failed to avail of several goal chances, and had they taken one or two of them, especially when playing with a strong wind in the first half, there could have been a different tale to tell at the finish.
At the same time, it seemed as if the acquisition of a Munster title was well within Cork's capabilities, given that Tipperary had earlier succumbed to Limerick in what was the first of a series of unexpected results that dramatically changed the hurling landscape in 2013.
It didn't go according to plan in the final, as Cork – again forced to deal with the loss of a key player, Brian Murphy, due to injury – went under to the Shannonsiders by nine points, 0-24 to 0-15, on a day when the dismissal of Patrick Horgan just before half time had a vital bearing on the outcome.
With Horgan and Seamus Harnedy, unquestionably the find of the season, to the fore up front, and Shane O'Neill dominant at full back, Cork looked marginally the better side in the first half, at the end of which the teams were tied on ten points apiece.
Inspired primarily by the second half heroics of O'Neill and Pa Cronin, they remained in contention before their numerical disadvantage took its toll, allowing Limerick, notching seven unanswered points, to power home in the last ten minutes.
The perception was that the Munster final defeat had put paid to Cork's hopes of lifting a major title for the first time since 2006, especially since their next assignment was against All-Ireland champions Kilkenny, who, on the trail of the three-in-a-row, appeared to be building up a bit of steam after losing to Dublin in a semi final replay in Leinster.
The Cats had edged out Tipp and Waterford in the qualifiers in the meantime, but they were outgunned in the quarter final by the Rebels, who performed superbly to claim their most prestigious scalp since JBM took the helm in 2012.
Admittedly, Kilkenny's cause wasn't helped by the fact that, with Henry Shefflin picking up a second yellow card, they played the entire second half with just 14 men.
There was no denying, however, that Cork, who led by five points at half time, were full value for an 0-19 to 0-14 victory, with Anthony Nash, who, as in the Clare game in Munster, brought off three excellent saves, Shane O'Neill, Tom Kenny, William Egan, Daniel Kearney, Conor O'Sullivan, Seamus Harnedy, Pa Cronin and Patrick Horgan arguably earning the main plaudits in what was a tremendous team display. The result completed a season of seismic shocks which saw the three teams that had topped the ante-post betting – Kilkenny, Tipp and Galway – all consigned to the championship scrapheap before August.
Having accounted for Kilkenny and Galway, by 12 points, en route to a first Leinster title since 1961, Dublin were always likely to provide Cork with a stern test in the All-Ireland semi final, and so it turned out.
For 50 spell-binding minutes, two absolutely heroic teams slugged it out toe-to-toe in a free-scoring hurling feast, with never more than two points between them and the lead changing hands with regularity and rapidity. Then came an incident – the dismissal of Dublin's Ryan O'Dwyer for a second bookable offence – that changed the complexion of the game, handing the initiative to Cork at a crucial juncture.
Dublin were leading by a point at the time, but Anthony Nash equalised from the resultant free, and, significantly, Cork weren't to fall behind again, with an opportunist goal by Patrick Horgan inside the last five minutes securing their 1-24 to 1-19 victory.
It's impossible to say how the game would have panned out if Dublin didn't have a player sent off with 20 minutes to go. What cannot be disputed is that Cork and Dublin served up a marvellous hurling spectacle, which underlined the Rebels' rapid rate of development under JBM's stewardship. It had been a roller-coaster ride to the All-Ireland final, and, aside from the Limerick game, it wouldn't be too wide of the mark to suggest that Cork had got the vital breaks in all of their championship outings, including the opener against Clare.
The indications were that Davy Fitzgerald's tender-aged team had the potential to recover from the chastening experience endured against Cork, and could go a long way in the championship.
Apart from a slight blip when their shooting wasn't up to scratch again, and they were forced into extra-time by Wexford in the qualifiers, they performed with immense flair and assurance in ousting Galway and Limerick to qualify for a showdown with Cork on the biggest stage of all.
They had really blossomed in the All-Ireland semi final against Limerick, and the fear from a Cork perspective was that they might again set Croke Park alight in the showpiece. It proved to be a real eye-opener for Cork, as Clare turned on the style for much of the contest, confirming that they are the most talented group of young hurlers ever produced by the Banner.
Despite being outplayed to a large extent, Cork, aided by second half goals from Conor Lehane, Anthony Nash, from a free, and Pa Cronin, came within seconds of claiming a remarkable victory after a point from Patrick Horgan nudged them in front, 3-16 to 0-24, for the first time in the 71st. minute.
But up popped corner back Donhnall O'Donovan with a last-gasp point to earn Clare a dramatic reprieve, which was the least they deserved on the general run of the play.
That Cork almost got over the line without even remotely firing on all cylinders caused many to contend that just to raise their game another notch or two might enable them to get the job done in the replay.
While Cork did perform much better, it wasn't quite enough to carry the day, simply because Clare again showed they were the superior side. Indeed, they looked in a different class, as, with full forward Shane O'Donnell, who didn't feature in the drawn game, scoring three goals, they threatened to overwhelm Cork before half time.
A cracking goal by Anthony Nash from a close-in free kept Cork in touch, but they were 3-9 to 1-11 adrift at the break. Displaying admirable resolve, Cork gained parity for the second time after the interval, courtesy of a Seamus Harnedy goal, but crucially, they were unable to hit the front before a stunning strike from Conor McGrath put Clare back on course in the 62nd minute.
Even then Cork didn't give up the ghost, with a goal from substitute Stephen Moylan throwing them a lifeline, and it wasn't until Darrach Honan made it 5-16 to 3-16 in stoppage time that Clare could afford to breathe easily.
Facing a drubbing midway through the first half, it's a tribute to Cork's courage and conviction that they came back so strongly to push Clare hard all the way to the finish. They are obviously a team to be respected now, but it isn't going to be easy to get back to an All-Ireland final, because Kilkenny, Tipp and Galway haven't gone away, and the likes of Dublin, Limerick and Waterford are also well-equipped to make an impact next year.
Still, if Cork maintain a similar rate of progress as was achieved in 2013, it isn't beyond the bounds of possibility they will be there-or-thereabouts again.