Saturday 14 December 2019

Rebel rousers give old place a perfect send-off

Barry-Murphy ignores sentimentality as he heaps praise on players

Cork players and officials celebrate in the dressing room after winning the Munster SHC final at Pairc Uí Chaoimh. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Cork players and officials celebrate in the dressing room after winning the Munster SHC final at Pairc Uí Chaoimh. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

They anointed the old place in the only way appropriate, clenched hurling fists jabbing euphorically towards a perfect cornflower sky.

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If there was to be a textbook ending for Pairc Ui Chaoimh, this was it. Cork's hurlers peering out from the stand at a field turned crimson by their people, the noise carrying out over the canvas turrets of the marquee next door and running all the way into a giddy city.

The Pairc was never an aesthetic jewel, but it was theirs. It might have been rotten and quirky and ever so faintly dangerous, but they could be territorial about it in the way of volunteer curators protective of something odd and unloved in their town. This felt almost like a rite of passage then. A first Munster senior hurling crown for the county since 2006 and, bizarrely, Jimmy Barry-Murphy's first provincial championship victory at home as a Cork manager.

Turned out the old Pairc's last stand was to become one of its most lyrical.

It was a curious Munster final, mind. The first half always seemed in some kind of bronchial difficulty, the game wheezing and spluttering like an old air conditioning unit defeated by the soupy air. It wasn't so much being ground down by physicality as strangled by a stalemate of nerves.

Goals carry extraordinary purchase on such days and, from the moment Seamus Harnedy bullocked through for a 54th minute Blackrock-end goal, the old ghosts of the place seemed to have the gods persuaded.

For Barry-Murphy, who will scarcely ever forget the hiding delivered to him here by Limerick on his debut day as manager in '96, there might have been the sense of fitting symmetry then. But he has never tried to romanticise the stories that resonate from bricks and mortar and wasn't about to now.

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The old Pairc, he admitted, hadn't really been in his thinking. More the fact that they don't hand out ribbons for courage and, last year, his team got nothing.

"It doesn't worry me about the stadium, to be honest" he reflected.

"I have no great interest in winning the last or the first at the stadium, that doesn't worry me. I wanted to get silverware for the Cork public and supporters, but particularly the team and the players who have gone through a bit with us now.

"So I'm just delighted for the players and their families," he reflected, "it was tough for them losing those finals last year, so it's great for them to have silverware."

The game spooled itself out slowly at first. Limerick had made the early running, but all routes to Anthony Nash's goal proved tight and unwelcoming and, with Shane O'Neill on his case, the positioning of Shane Dowling on the edge of the Cork square never really looked like threatening a goal.

At the other end, only Conor Lehane and Alan Cadogan were truly flying and, by the mid-point, three of Cork's forwards were still scoreless from play and another, Patrick Horgan, had escaped Seamus Hickey's clutches just once.

These games invoke a kind of paralysis in people and, at 0-12 apiece by the midpoint, it had the air of a game that needed the clarity of a goal.

Harnedy leaked two wides just before he delivered it and had taken to snatching wary glances towards the line. "I thought I'd be getting the curly finger," he said with a smile after. "Thank God anyway the goal went in. It just broke my way and it all opened up and, before I knew it, I was in!"

Maybe the spirits in the stonework had a say.

He said the victory was less about tactic than enormous appetite and it was easy to believe. "I suppose there's no real tactic to it, it's just every man to himself. Just try and win your own ball, it's 15 on 15 at the end of the day and you have to fight for your own position and give it to the player in the better position. Just man on man and do your best to win the ball so there's nothing really."

Hurling pared down to its essentials.

Harnedy's goal changed the timbre of the battle. It was as if it compelled Limerick to do likewise in the way of a prize fighter looking to make a stand after being dumped on the canvas. And with Dowling seemingly chained to the edge of the 'square', it was no secret where they imagined they might just mine it.

TJ Ryan always sensed the first team to goal might win and, now, his team was chasing.

Paul Browne captured the group mindset when, in the 57th minute, he tried running down the throat of the Cork defence when a simple point was available. The ball was turned over and, seconds later, Bill Cooper was pointing to a wild, blaze of red at the Blackrock end.

Eight minutes later, Hickey came soloing out of defence with lovely, high-stockinged elegance, but his control was over-confident and Daniel Kearney pilfered. To Hickey's horror the ball was instantly transferred down to Paudie O'Sullivan whose sublime, rolled finish effectively ended the game as a contest.

Ryan had just seen his team beaten for being brave.

"We're very disappointed," he sighed later. "Munster finals are for winning and we didn't win it, it wasn't to be. To me, the key turning points were a couple of turnovers in the second half. But look, that's hurling, these things happen. In fairness to our fellas they gave it everything but just came up short."

They will go down the quarter-final route now, a route that – just now – is beginning to look like russian roulette.

"This was the Munster championship, a self-contained championship," said Ryan. "We're into another one now, we're in the last six and we've got to try and get ourselves into the last four, absolutely.

"I think the experience (of the Limerick players) will stand to them. At times there we dug ourselves out of trouble, we got ourselves back in the game. It was going to take something out of the ordinary to win it and in fairness it fell Cork's way."

So they turned the old place into what looked like a giant flower arrangement, an ocean of poppies maybe. And Jimmy Barry-Murphy took himself up to that quaint little room where so many great, departed gods of Cork hurling stare down sternly from the walls.

It was put to him that Cork "needed" this silverware.

"Needing it and getting it are two different things," he said with a smile. "Lots of counties want to win things, we do too, but it's fair to say the finals we lost last year were bitter pills. Those were hard to take for the group and right through the national league there was a bit of a hangover. But, since then, the lads have been great."

One year on, were Cork better?

"Time will tell," he shrugged. "We were at home and that was a big factor."

It was, especially, on a day bidding farewell to the old concrete ghost by the marina.

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