Saturday 24 February 2018

'The ones on the outside taking cheap shots don't have a clue really' says Rebel Horgan

Horgan confident Cork can rescue their season and silence critics

Rebel sharp-shooter Patrick Horgan is hoping Cork can follow Clare’s example of taking the long way to All-Ireland glory
Rebel sharp-shooter Patrick Horgan is hoping Cork can follow Clare’s example of taking the long way to All-Ireland glory
Conal Keaney, Patrick Horgan and Henry Shefflin pictured with Hannah Mahony, Sean Whelan and Rebecca Moriarty at the launch of Centra's 'Champions of Healthy Living' campaign in Dublin's Herbert Park
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He hears the grumbles threatening to over-run them, he knows their audience is restive. Message boards on Cork hurling come peppered with the word "crisis" now.

Critics sigh gravely that the modern game seems an enigma to their management. They see a world in which every play must be diagrammed, stress-tested and broken down into some kind of coaching algebra and fear Cork might mistake the classroom for a ballet school.

Patrick Horgan is deaf to none of this, but still he smiles.

Cork go to Wexford Park tonight looking to stay alive in this championship, yet faithful to a view that they can still pull lightning from this summer.

How? By staying true to themselves. By holding their nerve in the face of the almost irrational gloom that successive big-day defeats to Waterford visited upon their people.

Apart from the small knot of supporters who pitch up at training every week, it seems they have few real friends today. No matter. One good win, Horgan suspects, can change this.

The job for Jimmy Barry-Murphy and his players is to find a common metabolism and simply remember how to hurl.

After all, only a miracle score denied them the All-Ireland in 2013 and they've won a Munster Championship since. Maybe the worst thing they could do is tune into all of the negativity rinsing through their world just now.

Barry-Murphy observes the so-called intellectualisation of the game, believing there to be a better way.


And, to begin with against Waterford on June 7, their hurling had a beautiful, light cadence. But the concession of two quick goals dismantled everything.

"We just fell apart," Horgan agrees. "Those goals knocked all the good work that we'd done out of it and we just know that we have to be better now.

"Out of nowhere in just two minutes, from being all over them, we were just chasing and chasing. It wasn't good enough."

The defeat, reprising what had unfolded in the league final, decanted all manner of toxicity in their direction. And in a week that left Meath's football goalkeeper Paddy O'Rourke the victim of vicious trolling on social media, Horgan suspects the paradox of amateur sports people being treated as some kind of public property is becoming unsustainable.

In Cork's case, the best weapon they have to do deal with it is practised ambivalence.

He explains: "There's a lot of negativity but we don't care about it. We just care about what's going on inside in training on Tuesday and Thursday and at the weekend. We care about what we're doing in the gym. The people in the dressing-room are the people who matter at the end of the day.

"The ones on the outside taking cheap shots don't have a clue really. All the negativity is no good for anyone.

"Those people just love having something to say and they've got short memories. I mean we had a good league up to the final. We were going well the last day until those two goals.

"And you know, before the Tipperary game (All-Ireland semi-final) last year, the view would probably have been that we were playing the best hurling in the country.

"But people just jump all over us as soon as they get half a chance."

And the personalisation of criticism now? The bile that flows from invisible keyboard warriors?

"They forget that it's just normal fellas they're giving an awful time to over stupid things," he says. "Fellas that are going to work on Monday like.

"It would be different if they were getting a big cheque at the end of the week. If it was their job. If you see a soccer player in the Premier League getting abuse, you'd say, 'Fair enough, I'd take that no problem if I was on 70 grand a week!'

"But something has to be done about it. It needs to stop. There's a lot of it around Cork as well and it's something I hate seeing."

So what exactly is left for Cork in this championship? A trip to Wexford wouldn't exactly have been their preferred choice when the qualifier draw took place.

Their confidence looked surprisingly brittle once those Waterford goals flew past Anthony Nash in Thurles last month and Barry-Murphy's traditionalist view that a team should line up in conventional positions and hurl with freedom was depicted by some after as naively old-world.

The image of Cork being resistant to change isn't a new one in hurling circles.

It is broadly accepted that they were slow to absorb the new physical demands of hurling in the '90s. Yet, once they did (bringing in Teddy Owens), they won the All-Ireland in '99.

Barry-Murphy was, of course, manager then too. He isn't closed to new ideas, merely suspicious of cyclical fads.

The fashion today is to deploy a sweeper, and there are those who seem to believe that such a move might be the answer to Cork's defensive vulnerabilities. Has it crossed Cork minds to try one? To maybe seek to be more cynical?

Horgan chuckles at the idea that a team could reinvent itself in a month.

"Look, we'll just play the way we always play," he says. "That's attacking hurling.

"If anyone comes with a different idea, we'll have to see then. But you can't do that in mid-season. Like Waterford are looking at their system you can be sure since January or February. So it's something you can't just change around in the middle of the summer.

"You do what's best for your team but I'd say everyone prefers to watch pure hurling."

Horgan himself has found Waterford consistently awkward opposition and, more specifically, Noel Connors a suffocating jailer. He did not register a score in either of Cork's two Munster final games against a team managed by Davy Fitzgerald in 2010 and again struggled to escape Connors' clutches in those more recent battles.

His view is that he was imprisoned by a system rather than a single opponent.

"Facing any player one on one wouldn't be frustrating," he explains. "But when you have so many bodies in defence, it takes big pressure off a marker. Like, they don't have to go playing the ball because they know they have people around them. So they just play the man, which they can get away with, and leave the ball to go in behind where they've spare players.

"So there's no pressure on the defender. If they never touch the ball in the game, they can still end up playing a stormer."

Still, today's system, he believes, is tomorrow's certificate of innocence. Everything keeps changing.

The hurling he loves is that articulated in their 2013 games against Dublin and Clare - great, lurching roller-coasters that raced away on ungovernable paths. Horgan says that the greatest player he's seen play the game is Tipperary's Eoin Kelly. In his world, skill will always find primacy over tactic.

But Cork, palpably, need to strike some kind of balance now. Wexford will ask quarrelsome questions tonight and, if Cork can't find the answers, the din of supporter discord could become deafening.

"It's either win now or go home," accepts Horgan. "So we're just trying to stay positive. We saw the route Clare took to winning the All-Ireland in 2013 - they went the longest way possible, so you just don't know.

"It's a strange one really. I don't think people are too positive about the hurling at the moment in Cork, but that could all change in a second. We'd be very frustrated now, but there's other days when we're nearly unplayable.

"Hurling's all on the day, it's the tiniest things that get away from you."

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