Tuesday 23 January 2018

Vincent Hogan: Cork old guard make mockery of obituaries

Veterans respond to jibes as derided Aisake proves vital route-one option

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The emotion came bursting out of them, from every nerve, every sinew, every cuticle. Sean Og and Jerry O'Connor fell into one another's arms, the two as one, quivering like a plucked string.

Donal Og turned to the Blackrock end, kissing the crest on his jersey. And down at the city-goal, a big, almost goofy kid who must bend to get through the lintel of a door, prepared for the new life now opening out before him.

Cork came down hard on Tipperary yesterday, timber wolves on the scent of vulnerable prey. And, even for a team that has scarcely lived a dull day in its existence, this one had a deeply personal status.

As Cusack would put it later: "That game was very important to this group of players. It was very important to Cork hurling. I don't think we were trying to give a message to anybody. It was just a very important game for us as men. As a group together.

"Maybe it was said beforehand that a lot of these lads are pushing on a bit. If you like, we put it up to ourselves that everything was going to be on the line today."

There is an old boxing theory that you never learn anything until you're tired. And it seems apt to reference now, for Cork came to this game widely depicted as a team of old pugs who'd, maybe, lost the elastic in their socks.

They ran out of legs in the League final and some of them rolled, thereafter, into a blizzard of satire and worse on internet chat-boards. No-one was derided more viciously than Aisake O hAilpin.

This was his answer.

Actually, Cork's tactic was uncomplicated as a kite run. They rained balls down on their giant full-forward, embracing the view that, historically, no-one out-jumped Gulliver. To some degree, it was a repudiation of all this charismatic team has long held sacred.

The Cork way this past decade has been to get the ball, toss it into a Pickfords van and take it the length of the field under lock and key. They have a name for guarding possession so jealously, the idea of hitting percentage balls almost brought them out in hives.

Yet, here, Aisake's hand was less a percentage option than a written warranty. He terrorised the Tipp full-back line to the extent that Padraic Maher and, subsequently, Paul Curran might as well have been tasked with sucking up that nasty oil slick off the Florida coast with a drinking straw.

Traditionalists, no doubt, exulted.

Hurling old-timers don't like the unorthodox and much of what this extraordinary group of men has achieved seemed to underwhelm those reared on the direct route to a big target-man like Ray Cummins.

Now it is Tipp who fly in the face of convention. Their half-forward line doesn't house a conspicuous ball-winner and, to some, this seems tantamount to playing in leg-chains. Liam Sheedy will know that another bad day for his half-forwards will have energised the cognoscenti.

Tipp's front men are all wristy touch and blazing pace but, without the ball, touch and pace don't really amount to a hill of beans.

Sheedy himself admitted to sympathy for his defenders, given how "the ball was just coming back so easy".

Still, if any single quality defined this game, it was Cork's hunger. They were tuned to uncommon intensity.

Requiem

John Gardiner spoke afterwards of hearing the pre-match talk acquire a sense of requiem for so many marquee men and feeling only a flood of indignation.

"It's hard for fellas to take sometimes coming up to a game when they're training away and some people are saying that they're over the top, writing them off really," he reflected. "And I suppose fellas used it to their personal advantage today. All the big guns came out and performed.

"Ronan Curran was outstanding, caught six or seven balls there in the second-half. Eoin Cadogan the same at full-back. Sean Og as well, driving on. Fellas had him written off.

"I suppose we're back to the stage now where every fella knows his place in the team and they just need to drive on. We were kind of depending on one or two fellas going back over the last couple of years. But everyone had to row in today. And that's exactly what they did.

"To be honest, we didn't expect to win by that much. We expected more from Tipperary."

And that was the essential tenor of it. Tipp, so glorious last year, looked caught in an invisible clinch here. Their hurling just wasn't ratcheted to Cork's intensity and, in the history of the old game, no team has ever survived that shortfall.

Cork haven't really been a goal-scoring team since names like Fitzgibbon, Hennessy and Mulcahy speckled their forward-line. Yet, Aisake may be the man to return them to the '90s.

He already had alarm-bells ringing in the Tipp square long before Maher pulled him down for the 14th-minute penalty that Pat Horgan buried. And when, 10 minutes later, he set up Horgan for another, you couldn't but marvel at the simplicity with which Tipp were being dismantled.

Ball after ball came pinging to the edge of their square and Aisake's hand was the lightning rod.

"Another fella that was written off coming into the game," Gardiner reflected. "You know, nasty enough things being said about him. Like you'd hear things, rumours on the street. So you're just delighted for fellas like that. We knew within the group that there were performances in these big guys.

"Sean Og too. The big guns came out with big performances today."

Cusack surmised that another O hAilpin was probably watching on a TV in Melbourne and we can but imagine the celebratory gyrations of Setanta when Aisake bagged Cork's third goal, 10 minutes from time.

By then, Tipp's race was run. Two of their marquee forwards, Eoin Kelly and Noel McGrath, did not register a score from play between them. Debutant full-forward Brian O'Meara also drew a blank.

"Just one of those days," as Curran put it. "We were beaten all over the field."

Still, the "EASY, EASY" chants from the Blackrock end will have left a sharp tang on the tongue. Second favourites for the All-Ireland yesterday morning, Tipp now get pitched down a heavily mined track to the qualifiers.

Gardiner spoke last night of how difficult it is to take that route and arrive in Croke Park pitched to proper intensity. Yet, for Sheedy, there could be no refuge in self-pity. He spoke, instead, of the back door as a blessing.

"We'll find out about the mental strength of our team now," said the Portroe man. "But, last year, we came out of Nowlan Park and people wondered would we ever get back up on the horse again. In fairness to this group, they've experienced this before.

"It's a bad day for us, we're absolutely devastated down there. But the beauty of this is we came out of here 11 years ago with nothing. Our season was over.

"Well, we can be delighted tonight that we get a second bite of the cherry. And we'd be feeling that we'd like to make the best use of it."

Nearby, Denis Walsh was smiling that gentle, bespectacled smile. Someone asked if he had ever harboured doubt that this old team could pull lightning from the sky again. "Look, who would I be to doubt those guys?" he said softly.

Who were any of us?

Irish Independent

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