Allen has faith in Horgan to lead Cork assault
Was it really a year to the day yesterday when Denis Walsh emerged from a shell-shocked Cork dressing-room in the bowels of Nowlan Park and into the arms of media hounds who were only interested in picking off the remains of the carcass that had just been savagely devoured by the most ravenous of hurling predators?
It was Walsh's first game, they had just suffered the most brutal league beating any Cork team had suffered to any opposition, never mind to their age-old rivals. A 4-26 to 0-11 scoreline could actually have been worse.
He looked dazed, lost even, when he stood out into the cold corridor that a confident Kilkenny had swept down through some 40 minutes earlier.
By way of explanation Walsh could offer little and, at that moment, we were entitled to have sympathy and wonder if he had the capacity to turn it around. For Cork hurling, April 5, 2009 will always represent their Ground Zero.
Fast forward 12 months and the picture is a little different. The dearth of goals still continues to shadow their every move but they remain undefeated in competitive league action in 2010.
Quietly, Walsh has been able to rebuild shattered confidence, delegate responsibility again and, crucially, take tough decisions with an authority that his demeanour wouldn't always suggest he possesses.
For a Cork team that habitually turned its nose up to league activity throughout much of the last decade, it has been a statement of intent, a need to rehabilitate.
For the first time in quite a long time they can draw breath and look back positively at a campaign that may not have brought them fulfilment yet, but has supplied much peace of mind after a tumultuous few years.
"All the indications are that the Cork camp is a happy camp," admitted John Allen, the last Cork manager to guide them to an All-Ireland title in 2005.
"And a happy camp is a productive camp," he added. "They are hurling with smiles on their faces, they are enjoying it again and I think that comes across more evidently than anything else."
Cork are not the finished article. Reaching a first league final for eight years does not catapult them into the same stratosphere as Kilkenny again. And they'll still tread wearily down into the 'Pairc' at the end of May when Tipperary arrive.
The goals, or lack of them are still a problem, though. Go back over the last four years of championship results and they have drawn more blanks than any other team.
"Even in my time and in Donal's (O'Grady) time the goals didn't flow," conceded Allen.
This league campaign has brought only marginal improvement, but improvement nonetheless. Statistically, Patrick Horgan's lone goal at Pairc Ui Chaoimh against Tipp did little to bolster a poor strike-rate that continues to be their Achilles heel.
In six rounds of Division 1 so far they have hit the net the same number of times as Limerick (seven), a figure also matched by Kilkenny. Only twice have they managed two or more -- against a weakened Limerick side, when they scored two, and Waterford, when one more was added.
But the emergence of Horgan as a predator of real quality is a source of encouragement to Allen and others who observe Cork hurling at close quarters.
"We probably haven't had that type of predator, a John Fitzgibbon-like player who has the confidence to go for goals," says Allen. "And the style of play in the past probably didn't lend itself to goal rushes.
"There are very few teams willing to play it speculatively now. Even Kilkenny will look up and see what's on. That's the way hurling has gone, so there will be less chances and less goals as a consequence."
Horgan remains a beacon of hope in that regard, though. "He probably still lacks a bit of confidence to go it alone more often, but he's getting there. He's a real good striker of the ball."
Allen is convinced, however, that Sunday's game has put paid to any prospect of Walsh and Cork unleashing the twin towers -- 6' 6" Aisake O hAilpin and 6' 7" Michael Cussen -- on the Tipperary defence in May.
O hAilpin asked serious questions of Padraic Maher as a full-back in the early stages before being switched out to centre-forward.
With Cussen not being pressed into action, the former manager feels the deployment of both players in May has all but been ruled out and that Walsh wasn't keeping his cards close to his chest in any way.
"I don't think we'll see them together on the same line. It would an interesting prospect for hurling but it looks like there's a different plan in store," he said.
Whatever plan is hatched, it will be done so with confidence. It's a fair assumption to make that Walsh now knows up to 13 of his championship team. Boxes at midfield and half-forward berths remain to be ticked.
A much better landscape altogether than the one he viewed 12 months ago from the desolation of the amphitheatre that was Nowlan Park.