Cork a different animal this time after last year's agony
Pat Horgan and Cork are refusing to dwell on last year's agonies, writes Dermot Crowe
Until he wins a Celtic Cross, Pat Horgan remains the man who nearly got the winner in an All-Ireland final. It is not a teeth-grinding concern but he understands that he will be asked to return there until something more interesting comes along. In the first minute of injury time his sweet connection sent the ball spearing between the posts for a score fit to win an All-Ireland.
When Patrick Kelly pucked the ball out, play was entering the second and final minute of official injury time. Horgan didn't dwell on his score and its potential consequences; not in a game like this. From the remove of several months, he is asked if he realised in the tumult what time was left? "I knew."
On scoring he pumped his fist and trotted back to position. "It went over, I definitely didn't think we were after winning anything. There was a minute and a half left . . . they were always going to get a chance." For less than a minute it kept a sliver of light between the teams until Dómhnall O'Donovan turned comic-book hero. But there are so many things that can riddle and jar. "That little thing down in the corner people are on about it still. At the time when he cut it (the sideline), I said, 'That's brilliant'."
He is talking about the sideline Stephen Moylan put wide and the blaze of debate over whether he should have played it differently to keep the ball alive. That is not how hurling works, Horgan appreciates. You can't chip into the corner and try to play out time. Moylan had a go, got clean contact but it went wide and Clare had the ball again and the chance for the final attack that brought the equaliser.
After the drawn match, Horgan bristled at media questions implying that Clare were the better team and Cork had been fortunate to get a draw in spite of the finish. "We were two seconds away from winning an All-Ireland so I don't know what you're all going on about really." But the journalist on the receiving end was also happy to point out that Horgan continued fielding questions and was kind with his time. He is the same now, all this time later, looking forward to a new championship and one of the most open since the 1990s. Cork have set the bar high and he makes no attempt to disguise it.
"If you think of anything, take soccer: if Liverpool finish fourth or fifth next year, they won't be happy with that. We got to the final last year, if we are beaten in the quarter-final this year you couldn't be happy with that, you can't be happy going backward. The honest answer is that if we don't win it it's not good enough; if we get to the final again and get beaten it is not good enough."
At 26, in an attack featuring players like Conor Lehane and Seamus Harnedy, Horgan is the main anchor and most valuable hurler in their ranks. He is the one Cork can least afford to lose. In recent years he has developed into one of the game's best forwards and his form in 2013 was of the kind that wins Hurler of the Year.
That score near the end of the All-Ireland final drawn match showed what he has become, a brilliant hurler at the top of his game. When Christopher Joyce's lineball skipped into his path on the 45-metre line, he held off a Clare challenge while controlling the ball on his stick with a couple of deft touches as he moved across the field. He then cut infield a few yards to create enough room to take aim. To swing he required a degree of comfort that he didn't have. A man breathing down his neck, a second to strike the ball; a swing was a luxury. He whipped the ball close to his body with little back-lift, using his wrists to full effect. It was a hurler's score, a moment of brilliance executed in seconds.
In his movement and striking action there is a lot of Eoin Kelly of Tipperary when he was in his prime. Cork's last score in the drawn All-Ireland final was Horgan's tenth. His free-taking has also been a critical part of their recent advances and he is in the top echelon for accuracy from all distances and angles. It is doubtful if there is any better free-taker out there at present. Over the two matches against Clare, he missed only one, and that was from inside his own half. Some of his striking from distance in play has also been a joy to watch for the purity of the technique and the economy of movement.
When the All-Ireland semi-final needed something to break Dublin's dogged resistance, it was Horgan who provided it, availing of a rare error from Gary Maguire. The ball hopped off Maguire's hurl for a fraction of a second and Horgan flicked it to the net for Cork's first goal of the championship. He did the same against Tipperary in this year's league quarter-final, reacting quickly when the goalkeeper failed to exert sufficient control. Four years ago against Tipp in the league, he scored a YouTube special, tipping a rebound from the 'keeper from his right to this left side which wrong-footed a defender and then volleying the ball off his left to the net.
But success hasn't flowed like champagne. When he made the Cork senior championship team in 2008, coming on as a sub against Tipperary in a Munster semi-final defeat and later starting the All-Ireland quarter-final win over Clare, the remnants of the last successful era were still in place: Joe Deane, Niall McCarthy, Ben O'Connor. He had to bide his time. He didn't feel overawed and has said nerves don't affect him. There was no questioning his ability.
In 2010 and 2013, he lost Munster finals, to Waterford and Limerick, and in last year's final he was centre-stage for the wrong reasons when red-carded for striking an opponent on the head under a dropping ball. The contact was minimal but the referee was within his rights to send him off. The decision was controversially overturned on appeal, even if there was sympathy for Horgan who is not a player associated with the darker arts. By then Cork had lost the Munster final and that decision played a part.
"Not only did I get sent off, but when I did get sent off last year, the heat that day, you could see straight away it was going to come against us. If we had 15 on the pitch it would have been closer, definitely, because they kind of ran away with it no bother in the end. Other than that, we got to two league finals, Galway beat us one year and Kilkenny another. Everyone loses finals but we wouldn't want to be making a habit of it anymore."
There was a narrow county final defeat by Sarsfields in 2010 as well, Glen Rovers' first senior final appearance since 1991. In 2010, Horgan scored 2-2 in the defeat of eventual champions Tipperary in Cork and 1-2 in the semi-final defeat of Limerick. But they were turned over in the final after a replay by Waterford and the downturn cost Horgan his place for the All-Ireland quarter-final against Antrim. He was taken off late in the drawn Munster final and at half-time in the replay, failing to score either day. Returned to the side for the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny, he scored 0-6, including 0-4 from play, in spite of Cork playing second fiddle. By the next championship he was the team's free-taker and the added responsibility has suited him and helped his confidence.
The spring has seen Cork playing off-Broadway in Division 1B, a shaky start when drawing with Limerick eventually developing into a promotion run. Horgan said they were happy with their form, picking up the results when needed and getting back up at the first attempt. In 1978, Cork won the All-Ireland from Division 2 which is maybe what Jimmy Barry-Murphy was alluding to last year when not ruling out a September success on the day they suffered relegation after a play-off defeat to Clare. But Cork needed a tonic after losing the All-Ireland and their quarter-final meeting with Tipp offered a chance to measure how much their speed and reactions had slowed in the lower tier.
"It was probably the next step up and we got caught for pace in the first ten minutes. They went, I think, 2-4 to no score up and I just think we got caught by the speed of the game as you would. I think after that we coped well and at the end of it we had a 21-yard free to draw the game. So we were delighted with what we did in that game and the league overall."
The All-Ireland final defeat was out of their systems when the new season came in as they swapped the excitement of Croke Park in September for a gale-swept Portlaoise and a long trip up to Ballycastle. "We went away on a holiday in Orlando and the Dominican Republic and that was good, really good. That was the very start of January. Yeah, we went off there and it was brilliant and since we came back we haven't even talked about it (the All-Ireland). It was good because we're such a young panel and a lot of new fellas came onto it last year. You go training and you have a set routine and you're coming across 30 fellas every night.
"You can't sit down with 30 fellas and talk to them and get to know them. We went on that holiday and, you might think I'm only saying this, but the 30 fellas are really tight now. Whereas last year you probably wouldn't know how to approach a fella. Not even that, it's just that you wouldn't know them."
Last year gave them the confidence that might have been absent from previous campaigns. "Yeah, we know we can play any of them. We can play the best of them. We were knocked out of the league by Tipp by three points after getting off to a horrific start. It's the same in most games. We went from drawing the All-Ireland final to losing it the second game but you don't turn into a bad team because of that.
"I felt the team went to a new level. As I said, we went on a run of games last year. Basically when we beat Kilkenny that was kinda like – we were the first team to knock Kilkenny out of the championship in a few years. Teams have beaten them but not knocked them out of the championship; that was a big thing for us. The whole team got better, not just the individual players."
In the All-Ireland final replay he cites a key moment when Conor O'Sullivan had a ball during a long stretch where Cork had kept Clare scoreless and "he broke past a challenge and was in the clear, basically setting up another attack after we drawing it (tying the game). The ref gave a free for over-carrying and they got a point from that, which just straight away put an end to it. We had them under pressure to then the pressure being off. That's the way it went last year. The tiniest things mattered last year."
Now they are gunning for another go, starting today in the opening match of the Munster hurling championship. Don't expect Horgan to fire a blank as he did twice against Waterford in the championship in 2010. He is a different animal now. And so are Cork.
Centra are this year marking their fifth as official sponsor of the All-Ireland SHC and Pat Horgan was among those on hand to recently launch community hurling events, which will be taking place in stadiums and clubs this summer. For more information go to www.centra.ie or find Centra Ireland on Facebook and Twitter.
Sunday Indo Sport