Standing up to be counted
Denis Walsh and his team are starting to win over the Cork hurling public, says Dermot Crowe
INSIDE Páirc Uí Chaoimh five days before a league final, Denis Walsh is conducting a training session that looks a picture of peace and contentment. For Cork, miserably dysfunctional in recent years, tranquility is no small gain. Expectation raids the air.
In a month's time, the venue will morph into a cauldron of noise and bedlam when Tipperary arrive for an intriguing re-enactment of the old Munster rivalry. Customers are guaranteed substantial swing for their buck.
But, for now, Galway in Thurles is a more pressing and immediate priority. Cork's precise state of health cannot yet be fully diagnosed -- in the meantime, it is a riddle of conjecture. They know they have got better, but by how much? There are positive signs: recent league form; the resurgence in the half-back line; the absence of confrontation; two huge men radicalising the forward unit. But the league can't probe all areas; Tipperary will show how far they have travelled or how little at the end of May.
Under a gun-metal grey sky, they move through a succession of drills in an almost entirely private ceremony. Earlier at a press conference at Páirc Uí Rinn, Walsh has been asked about Tipperary. He seemed genuine when saying the county was not uppermost in his thoughts; it had to be Galway for now and that was enough, surely. The word coming back from the west was unequivocal: the Tribesmen were gunning for victory. In the words of John McIntyre, they would be holding nothing back.
Cork shall not be refraining either. They can smell the championship, the possibilities, and the blood of Tipp men. They have drawn out all the poison and fully detoxed. It is a long way from Walsh's first dressing-room experience after they lost at Nowlan Park last year in the league, soon after his appointment and the fiercely divisive strike. Kilkenny humiliated them. It is a vast distance from that dark place.
There was a hunger for normality but the choice of manager had to be right and carefully made. Former Cork players John Fenton, Jimmy Barry Murphy and Denis Coughlan were asked to find him and they proposed Walsh, a dual player regarded as having made the most of his talents, but relatively inexperienced and unproven as a manager. He is steadily winning the confidence of the Cork public and he has nailed the respect of his players. He has not achieved this as an obsequious sort or with one eye on the past. Despite all their shortcomings, they ran Tipperary to a goal in Munster last summer, beat Offaly well and then finally succumbed to today's opponents. This year has seen more direct play and renewed vigour and vibrancy in Cork's hurling. Walsh's stock has risen accordingly.
"We were very confident of Dinny," says John Fenton, a font of hurling passion himself. "We were confident he was the right guy."
What made him the right guy? "Well, the person to bring us forward, steady the ship if you like, a person who would be his own man which Denis very much is. He has a lot of experience playing hurling and football. I go to a lot of club games in Cork and invariably Denis Walsh was at the same games.
"If he was playing now, even with the Cork half-back line that's there, he would be on the team. Very reliable, skilful, strong, and very, very committed. And they're the attributes we saw in Denis Walsh, what we saw was needed for Cork and so far I don't think anybody could say it isn't working well."
Cork like to win, as their illustrious history shows, and they like to win with style. Recourse to a more direct game will greatly please the older school, but also many of the modern generation who now see a greater goal threat and a pleasing variation in their attacking forays. As Barbara Stanwyck said to Fred McMurray in the film noir classic, Double Indemnity, there is no turning back now -- it is straight down the line. The crane-like reach of Aisake ó hAilpín and Michael Cussen has made it possible. Though somewhat coltish, they are plainly modelled on old-fashioned target-men. In Cork's league match at home to Tipp, it was notable how persistently they rained ball down on ó hAilpín in the first 20 minutes, while he was being marked by All Star full-back Páraic Maher.
In training, the players volunteer for a drill where two forwards aggressively take on two backs with the intention of scoring a goal. "You must score a goal," they are instructed. Goals for a long time were a hallmark of Cork hurling but the abandonment of direct hurling made them increasingly rare. At Páirc Uí Chaoimh, players are breaking through tackles and going for the jugular. They lash the net. "At long last," Ray Cummins declares on seeing the apparent end of an era of passing and possession. Cork won All-Irelands playing this way but some of the old visceral thrills were missing from the performance.
During a training match a Cork player is found guilty of needless over-elaboration when in a good scoring position. He passes to a colleague nearer goal and the attack breaks down. Walsh, calm and controlled for the most part, suddenly blows his whistle and snaps. "We are playing the league final on Sunday, cut that fucking thing out."
Walsh comes from a tradition that Fenton warmly identifies with. Fenton explains. "We won All-Irelands and the coaching would involve Johnny Clifford, who was one of the most astute coaches Cork ever had, throwing maybe 15-20 balls on the field, and for the next 20-25 minutes lads would move up and down the field, letting the ball go. I think in many ways the coaching that is evolving at the moment is all about keeping players happy rather than improving their skills, particularly in hurling. Players are maybe mollycoddled to an extent. That was the extent of the coaching we did. We just got on with it.
"There was a report in one of the papers where a reporter went down to see Kilkenny train. I have never seen Kilkenny train, but the way he described it was like something we would have done 30 years ago. I heard Brian Cody speak at a coaching seminar here last year. What Brian Cody said to us that day was something we had heard from our coaches 30 years ago. He carried forward that philosophy and it was working for him.
"Noel Collins was our first physical trainer, as distinct from coaching, the first to do that. Cork teams down the years, they had Tough Barry and others taking the whole session. But then you had Willie John Daly cycling from Carrigtwohill -- he didn't need any warm-up. And then he'd cycle home and that was his cooling-down session.
"Denis was around when Johnny was there, and he won with Canon O'Brien as well. He came from an era when coaching was simple, you get the ball and hit it."
Walsh is asked what has pleased him most this year. "I think the freshness of the players really," he starts. "The willingness of the players, the energy, (that was) the main thing for me. Anything we have asked them to perform they have done it." He mentions the revitalisation of John Gardiner, relieved of the strain of being a front-line activist during their troubles. Emptied of that duty, and the captaincy, he has thrived.
"I go with my gut feeling," says Walsh. "If I meet someone and I don't like them, I don't like them. I was at a lot of their league and club matches and my gut feeling was there was no need for anyone to bail out. But they had to do the business. All the players had to perform. It's a new decade, like, some of these are playing since 1999, and Kilkenny are going for five in a row. They have risen to the occasion but it's yet to be seen if we are able to move up another gear come championship time."
For Fenton, they are going about it the right way. "I would like to see, and we used to see it, when there was no greater lift to a Cork crowd than to see the Rock coming out of the full-back line and driving that ball 90 yards. There'd be Cork fellas in the stand standing up. And like John Gardiner has been doing in recent games, getting the ball in the half-back line and straight over the bar. No messing. The goal Pat Horgan got -- was it against Tipperary, in the Páirc? -- (he) controlled the ball and rapped it to the back of the net. Simple hurling. No need to complicate hurling. You use the ball."
It is a topic that has exercised Fenton and a good deal more like him. "I think hurling has been footballised. I think it's going away from that now. Tipp use a direct game, Galway would be more direct, you get the ball into (Joe) Canning, that's the priority, Kilkenny have a choice. No point in (Noel) Hickey and (Jackie) Tyrrell passing the ball around the backline; their objective is get the ball up to that forward line. Cork have ó hAilpín now, Cussen, Horgan, coming on stream. The more ball they get, the more they'll score.
"We had (Ray) Cummins. Get the ball in to me as hard and as fast as you can (he would say). All he wanted was a hard and fast ball. I used to see the likes of Kevin Hennessy, and I saw Kevin at close hand, with Midleton and with Cork, and the greatest thrill that Kevin had was if he could carry the goalie with the ball into the back of the net. But the priority was to break the back of the net. Seánie O'Leary, the same. Kilkenny forwards: their first thought is how far they can drive the net back."
Cussen and ó hAilpín are both selected in the Cork attack against Galway today. Fenton says they remain a work in progress. ó hAilpín's ball-winning is not in doubt, his use of it needs attention though. "The quandary is whether they can play the two lads together," states Fenton. "I think it's a great problem to have, and I think Sunday against Galway will be a great indicator."
He sees a freshness not witnessed in five or six years and notes the greater spread of playing options and the transformation in some hurlers previously on the fringe. "Like, Pat Horgan was going through a rough patch last year, a great player for his club but he was finding the transition to senior inter-county difficult. And it is difficult. But the lads have persisted with him and given him a decent run of games and he has benefited."
Now, he says, everyone is rowing in the one direction. Past grievances are being set aside. "There is a pride and a love of the red jersey that goes very, very deep in Cork. People who are wearing it respect it, and respect the tradition and the character. They respond positively to that."
He refers to the last period of conflict as "horrendous" and laments how friends who drank together for 40 years aren't talking because of what went on. It is suggested that this is taking it too far. Nothing is worth that.
"Ah," he says, "but it is."
Cork v Galway,