Saturday 18 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Nightmare scenario stalks two of hurling's big counties

Anthony Cunningham and Jimmy Barry-Murphy
Anthony Cunningham and Jimmy Barry-Murphy

Eamonn Sweeney

Defeat for Galway or Cork today would be a major setback.

Given that all the managers involved in today's hurling quarter-finals are signed up till the end of the 2016 season, it seems unlikely that we'll have a repeat of last weekend's football scenario where defeat spelt the end for Brian McIver and Peter Creedon.

Yet for two of the counties, defeat in Thurles would be a disaster of such monumental proportions as to raise serious questions about the state of hurling in the county and leave supporter morale close to an all-time low. For both Galway and Cork, a loss today will spell an end to the hope of major honours in the near future. It will be back to square one. The dreaded transition period, from which few managers and even fewer teams emerge with much credit, will beckon.

Today's meeting of the Rebels and the Tribesmen means more than the usual quarter-final tie because both teams know what it's like to skip this stage altogether and not so long ago both appeared to be moving inexorably in the direction of an All-Ireland title.

In 2012 Galway came within a puck of the ball of lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup, and even if they were eventually defeated by Kilkenny, the weaknesses exposed as the teams split three games between them suggested Brian Cody's side were in decline. Galway seemed the obvious heirs with their peerless club championship and underage structure finally being reflected at senior level. Anthony Cunningham, who'd come into the job with a reputation as a winner at club level, seemed an inspirational manager in the Cyril Farrell mould.

And then, just one year later, Galway hardly turned up for the championship at all, surrendering at today's stage to a Clare team en route to going one better than their neighbours to the north. You could have called it inexplicable were it not for the frequency with which Galway have produced these year-long fadeouts in the past.

Last year they played some good stuff against Tipperary in the qualifiers before producing the mother and father of a collapse when conceding 2-10 and scoring only a single point in the last 20 minutes. Galway, it seemed, had regained their status as the team you could depend on to let you down.

But if they lumbered out of the blocks somewhat in the drawn game against Dublin which began their championship this year, things have looked up since then. The 3-10 in the first 18 minutes of the replay, so reminiscent of the opening blitz which destroyed Kilkenny in the 2012 Leinster final, showed just why Galway can never be wholly discounted.

In Joe Canning they have the most feared forward in the game and in Cathal Mannion and Jason Flynn they have players who could take some of the weight off him. Against Kilkenny in the Leinster final they came up well short in the end, but if it wasn't the type of performance which wins major honours, it wasn't a spineless surrender either. The graph is tending upwards again.

That's why defeat against Cork today would be an enormous setback for Cunningham and his team. Because, to put it bluntly, Cork are the kind of team Galway have to beat if they are to move back up to the next level.

Cork will know where Galway are coming from. In 2013, they too came within a puck of the ball of lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup and even if they were eventually defeated in the replay, their 2014 Munster final victory suggested a logical progression towards ultimate honours.

The dearth of under-age success and the structural problems, it seemed, didn't matter at all. Cork really could come up like the mushroom.

That's why last year's All-Ireland semi-final whipping by Tipperary was so traumatic. Cork haven't looked the same team since and seemed short of confidence when they were upset by Waterford in both the league final and the Munster semi. They did show a commendable appetite for battle when outlasting Clare in the qualifiers but in truth that was a pretty ropey match: as the teams swapped wides in the second half it seemed like hurling's equivalent of a slow bicycle race.

Defeat by Galway today should provoke the mother of all inquests into the state of Cork hurling. The dividing lines from the era of players' strikes have not vanished altogether and there are those who would still regard Jimmy Barry-Murphy as the 'county board choice,' and would have preferred to see someone like Ger Cunningham in charge.

Yet Barry-Murphy has probably overachieved with this team. Every year there is brave talk at county board level of this year's minors and under 21s being the ones who'll break through at provincial level. And every year comes further revelation of how far Cork have fallen behind in underage terms. Cork haven't even made a Munster minor final since 2008, a period in which Limerick, Clare, Waterford and Tipperary have all won provincial crowns. It's 2007 since they won a provincial under 21 title and 2001 since they won an All-Ireland underage title. Cork are at the back of the queue in Munster when it comes to producing promising young players.

The one consolation for the Rebels is the belief that tradition and know-how mean the side can still pull out occasional big performances at senior level. Lose today and that consolation will disappear. There may be even more at stake for Cork than there is for Galway.

Ger Cunningham and Dublin will be feeling a bit of pressure today too. When the Dubs won the Leinster final in 2013 their emergence as a serious power looked inevitable. Yet they endured a Galway-style fiasco season last term, have been eclipsed at minor level by Kilkenny and under 21 by Wexford and have been one of the biggest disappointments of the championship so far along with Clare and the Limerick team they edged past in the qualifiers.

Cunningham, too, has questions to answer. A massive reputation as a coach does not always translate into success as a manager and he has put himself on the line by stepping out from behind the scenes. His job is not in jeopardy but another below-par display will increase the numbers of those who are agnostic about Anthony Daly's successor.

Waterford are the one team who can relax. The league title, the win over Cork and the highly creditable Munster final display against Tipp mark them as probably the third best team in the championship. Derek McGrath is as secure in his job as any manager in the GAA right now and the Decies are in bonus territory. The Waterford fans are probably the only supporters who got a full sleep last night.

Cork and Galway, on the other hand, are in nightmare territory. For one of them, this could be the day when it all comes tumbling down.

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