Sunday 25 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Narrowing gap between 'Corkness' and weakness'

Another Croke Park disappointment means wait for 'Liam' on Leeside stretches to 14 years

Hogan's stand: Kilkenny's Richie Hogan shoots to score his team's second goal despite being hooked by Cork's Sean O’Donoghue. Photo: RAMSEY CARDY/SPORTSFILE
Hogan's stand: Kilkenny's Richie Hogan shoots to score his team's second goal despite being hooked by Cork's Sean O’Donoghue. Photo: RAMSEY CARDY/SPORTSFILE
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

By the banks of their own lovely Lee where they sat down, yeah they wept when they remembered Liam.

They barely remember him at this stage. Cork have just made history. Their defeat by Kilkenny means this decade will be the first since the foundation of the GAA not to witness a Rebel All-Ireland hurling victory.

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It says everything about the changed expectations in hurling's two most historically powerful counties that while there's been a lot of talk lately about Kilkenny enduring a slump because they haven't won an All-Ireland since 2015, Cork's fallow spell since 2005 has excited much less comment.

Instead, after Cork won two Munster titles in a row there was tons of blather about some special quality called 'Corkness' which was about to propel the county back to the top. The Cork County Board were so beguiled by this notion they even put the C-word into their official masterplan. But suppose this Corkness they speak of isn't really a superpower? Maybe it's a variety of nervous complaint. Three years in a row Cork have come to Croke Park as favourites to win big games and three years in a row they've lost.

On each occasion their fate has been sealed by a spectacular fadeout. Two years ago the final 12 minutes saw Waterford outscore them 3-6 to 0-2. Last year they led by six points with six minutes of normal time left before allowing Limerick to score seven points on the trot. Cork scraped a draw which sent the game into extra-time but their chance had gone.

This year the collapse took place in a third quarter where a Cork side leading by two at the break could only score 0-1 in response to Kilkenny's 1-8. To lose one big match in this manner is unfortunate, to lose two seems careless, but to lose three verges on the pathological. These implosions make them look like langers.

After a stuttering Leinster campaign, Kilkenny were viewed as a team in transition. Cork's successive Munster victories and this year's defeat of Limerick made them seem like viable All-Ireland contenders. Instead they finish the season with just three wins from six championship games. They've flattered to deceive under John Meyler.

This has been a problem in Cork recently. Two years ago the county's best minor team in years gave cause for optimism when reaching the All-Ireland final. Last year an awesome-looking under 21 team swept aside all opposition on its way to the decider. Both teams started their respective finals as favourites and both lost, the minors to Galway and the under 21s to a Tipperary team they'd beaten by 13 points in Munster.

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Cork teams can't seem to close things out these days. That used to be the problem of the game's lesser lights, counties who once felt a fear of the Cork jersey which diminishes with each underachieving Rebel year. That old red magic may still work at a packed Páirc Uí Chaoimh in the provincial championship but it cuts little ice in Croke Park where Cork have only won one game out of nine since 2010.

Yesterday's somnolent third quarter didn't finish Cork off but the comeback which saw them close the deficit from eight to two points owed less to team spirit than to one extraordinary individual performance. Patrick Horgan gave one of the great semi-final displays but, like Seamus Callanan's against Galway in 2015, it was doomed to end with defeat.

For several seasons now Horgan has put together a string of performances which rank with the best in the Cork pantheon. Yet he seems fated to become the greatest Cork player never to win an All-Ireland medal.

When the Glen Rovers man slotted a difficult free to leave just two in it ten minutes from time, the force seemed to be with his side. Instead Kilkenny bagged five of the last six points. They looked like a team who knew how to win this type of game. Cork looked like one mired in underachievement.

Until they stop taking solace in tradition and some nebulous concept of county identity, the vicious cycle will continue. It is 14 years since their last All-Ireland senior title, 18 since their last minor and 21 since their last U-21 title.

The change at the top of the county board and the opening of the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh seemed to offer a narrative of fresh starts and redemption. But things haven't turned out to be that simple. Cork remain the game's sleeping giants.

Consolation

It will be little consolation to the county's fans that yesterday's match was a classic. One of Cork's problems is that they're involved in too many classics. You can't imagine them making a game as physically demanding for an opponent as Limerick did for Tipperary in the Munster final.

Yesterday a Kilkenny side rebounding from two successive games against Wexford's harrying and smothering style must have felt like someone abandoning a rainy Irish autumn for a sunny week in Spain.

The French General Pierre Bosquet once observed of The Charge of the Light Brigade, "C'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas la guerre." Cork can make you feel like that. Magnificent though they can be to watch, a more warlike spirit might not go amiss. Even the most stylish of their successful predecessors had a steely core of artisans laying the groundwork for the artists.

The current side's displays are as quixotically romantic as a cavalry brigade charging a line of tanks. Cork are a team other teams enjoy playing against. Until that changes, they'll remain hurling's loveliest losers.

Right now, it seems entirely fitting that Corkness and Weakness are separated by just three letters.

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