Monday 19 February 2018

JBM works the oracle again

THE Cork hurlers are like mushrooms, they spring up overnight.

That phrase was coined many decades ago, and there have been a few instances of how Cork have emerged from relative obscurity to bask in the All-Ireland limelight in the meantime, most notably in 1966 and 1990.

It happened again in 1999, although there was evidence that Cork were a team on the rise at the time after they had won the National League the previous year. Just three years earlier, however, Cork had endured a real hammering from Limerick in the opening round of the championship at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, and it amounted to a baptism of fire for Jimmy Barry-Murphy as a manager at senior inter-county level.

He immediately set about the task of overhauling the team in the wake of it, and Cork's back-to-back All-Ireland wins Under 21 wins in 1997 and 1998 meant he wasn't lacking raw material. Still, it was perceived to be a bit of a gamble when he handed six players – Donal Og Cusack, Wayne Sherlock, Timmy McCarthy, Mickey O'Connell, Ben O'Connor and Neil Ronan – a championship debut against Waterford in 1999.

His decision to give youth its fling paid off handsomely, as, after upsetting the odds against Waterford, JBM's young guns went on to reach the summit by virtue of victories over fancied Clare, Offaly and Kilkenny in turn.

Thirteen years on, Barry-Murphy found himself in a similar situation after he returned to the hot seat and saw his team humiliated by Kilkenny in the 2012 league final. And, in view of Cork's lack of under-age success in recent years, it appeared as if he was going to be extremely hard-pressed to work the oracle this time.

He had been realistic in his assessment of where Cork stood in the pecking-order from the outset, acknowledging they had a long way to go to get up to the standard of the game's two big guns Kilkenny and Tipperary. But he repeatedly expressed the conviction that progress could be made, mirroring the unbounded positivity of a man who had achieved everything, in both hurling and football with Cork, as a player.

It wasn't an opinion that was universally shared, and little was expected from the team this year, all the more so after the management had to cope with player defections and retirements at the start of the season. They lost experienced attacker Paudie O'Sullivan as well due to injury, while they had to plan without Lorcan McLoughlin and Pa Cronin for the opening assignment in the championship against Clare, and without Brian Murphy for the Munster final against Limerick.

Through it all, JBM continued to preach optimism, making it clear he was satisfied the panel was strong, and that he had the utmost confidence in all the peripheral players to do a good job if called upon. It has certainly been a summer of vindication for Barry-Murphy and his co-selectors Ger Cunningham, Kieran Kingston, Seanie McGrath and Johnny Crowley, whose pre-season decision to axe a few seasoned stalwarts from last year's squad had been seriously questioned in many quarters.

Last Sunday at Croke Park, Cork booked a place in the All Ireland final at Dublin's expense, and it would be fair to say that nobody could have envisaged they would get to within a game of claiming hurling's top prize after losing to Clare in the league relegation final. It has been a roller-coaster ride since then, with Cork kick-starting their championship campaign with an eight-point win over a youthful Clare side, whose profligacy with goal chances cost them dearly on the day.

They went under by nine points to Limerick in the Munster final when the controversial dismissal of Patrick Horgan shortly before half time unquestionably had a bearing on the outcome. Against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland quarter final, it was Cork who enjoyed the benefit of a numerical advantage for the entire second half after Henry Shefflin was sent off, while Dublin's Ryan O'Dwyer was issued with his marching orders with 20 minutes remaining in the semi-final.

Given that Cork had looked the better team in the first half against Kilkenny, they would probably have won that game anyway, but it's impossible to say how things would have panned out had there 15 against 15 for the full 70 minutes last Sunday. What cannot be disputed is that Cork and Dublin served up a marvellous hurling spectacle, containing levels of skill, courage, sportsmanship and intensity comparable to any on display in a big game at headquarters in recent years.

It underlined Cork's rapid rate of development this season and how the players' self-belief has been nourished under JBM's stewardship, as was emphasised by Anthony Nash in a post-match interview. The Cork 'keeper is having an incredible season, and he puts that down to the trust placed in him by Barry-Murphy, who, according to Nash, has transmitted his innate conviction to every other player on the panel as well.

Unless he has a complete stinker in the All Ireland final, Nash is certain to pick up a second consecutive All-Star, especially since his main rival Gary Maguire grievously dented his chances with the mistake that led to Cork's crucial goal by Patrick Horgan last Sunday. It was only last year that Nash became Cork's first choice goalie, after spending quite some time in Donal Óg Cusack's shadow.

Now it seems as if his career is heading along the same lines as that of former Kilkenny great Noel Skehan, who went on to achieve huge success between 1972 and 1983, after being understudy to the legendary Ollie Walsh for years. As with the vast majority of his teammates, Nash is looking forward to playing in his first All-Ireland final, but it will very familiar territory for JBM, who, for all that he has achieved as a player and a manager in the past, could be celebrating his greatest feat ever in a few weeks time.

After Clare lost to Cork, I felt they could still go a long way this year, and, having built up a bit of momentum in the interim, I fancy them to edge out Limerick next Sunday. Whichever way the second semi-final goes, Cork won't fear the winners in the showpiece, but it's obviously going to be another huge test.

Just to be there, however, means that Cork hurling is back on a sound footing, and that Jimmy Barry-Murphy, long since a GAA icon on Leeside, has shown he possesses the Midas touch yet again.


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