Sport Hurling

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Sideline match-up tells a tale

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Eamonn Sweeney

The aristocrat and the revolutionary. The cool customer and the hothead. The dazzler of defenders and the foiler of forwards. You couldn't get two more different characters than Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Davy Fitzgerald.

Everything always seemed to be laid on for Jimmy Barry-Murphy. He wasn't just blessed with extraordinary natural talent, he was born in a county and at a time which enabled him to make the most of that talent. A month after his 19th birthday, he was winning an All-Ireland senior football medal and scoring two goals in the process. He'd won three All-Ireland senior hurling medals and five hurling and football All Stars before he turned 25.

Like every gifted Cork hurler in every generation, he would have known there was a fair chance his career would include a trip, or more probably trips, up to the Hogan Stand to lay hands on the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

It couldn't have been more perfect. Jimmy Barry played with St Finbarr's, the only club in history powerful enough to win both All-Ireland hurling and football titles. He played in all of those finals. And he played in probably the finest county championship of them all, the Cork senior hurling championship of the 1970s. The city's big three of the Barrs, Glen Rovers and Blackrock engaged in a series of epic clashes and divided not just county titles but All-Ireland titles, eight out of nine from 1972 to 1980 between them. In 1977, when the Barrs beat the Glen, there were 34,151 spectators in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Jimmy Barry-Murphy inhabited the centre of the hurling universe.

After winning the county final, Cork's big three tended to have things all their own way. But in 1977 the Barrs almost came unstuck in the Munster final when they were held to a draw by a Clare club who'd won their first ever county title that year. Normal service was resumed when the Barrs won the replay by eight points.

The drawn game would have been dismissed in Cork as just one of those things, another day when the minnows of Clare had the big boys on the ropes but failed to put them away. There was a tragic cast to Clare's hurling history by that stage. The magnificent team which won two National League titles might have ended a 45-year famine in the 1977 Munster final had full-back Jim Power not been sent off at a crucial stage of the game. Instead Cork, and Jimmy Barry-Murphy, won by five points and went on to take an All-Ireland title.

In 1978, Clare trailed by just two points against Cork at half-time with the advantage of a strong wind behind them. Their day had come but it went unseized. Cork won by two points and went on to take an All-Ireland title. The famine continued. This was how it went for the Clare county team and that little club who might have beaten the Barrs.

The club was called Sixmilebridge. They were the club of young Davy Fitzgerald, who was five when they failed to put the Barrs away and grew up in a hurling world almost entirely different from that inhabited by Jimmy Barry-Murphy.

Whereas Jimmy Barry had won a first All-Ireland while still in his teens, and that in his second favourite sport, great Banner hurlers such as Jimmy Smyth, Matt Nugent, Noel Casey, Ger Loughnane and Seán Stack went through a whole career without even a provincial title. Cork people told the story of how Christy Ring, a selector at the time, had rallied the Rebels at half-time in 1978 with a shout of "when I played Clare, I could beat them on my own. There are 15 of you". By the time Davy Fitzgerald made his inter-county debut in 1990, the famine was 58 years old.

And counting. Because when Clare reached the 1993 final they suffered an 18-point beating by Tipperary and when they had the temerity to return to the decider the following year, Limerick were on hand to administer another humiliation. It was their 11h provincial final defeat since 1932. The county's name tended to be preceded by the words 'poor old'.

But 1994 actually turned out to be the beginning of hurling's great democratic age, five years which turned certainties about the game on their heads, the only five years in history when neither Kilkenny, Tipperary nor Cork won an All-Ireland. And there is no more wonderful symbol of those years, and the shot in the arm they gave both hurling and the GAA in general, than Davy Fitzgerald's irresistible leap of joy as he made his way back into his own half after scoring the only goal of the 1995 Munster final, the day when the famine finally did end.

It was Davy Fitz too who provided one of the great memories of 1997, the year when Clare beat Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny in the one championship campaign and then beat Tipperary again to win their second All-Ireland final in three years, getting across goal in the last minute to stop the John Leahy shot which might have spoiled the whole wonderful story. In between there was even an All-Ireland club title for Sixmilebridge.

The revolution seemed to shake even the unflappable Jimmy Barry-Murphy. When he took his young Cork team to meet Clare in the 1999 Munster final, the consensus was that defeat, and four years without a Munster title, would spell the end of his reign. He would finally have unequivocally failed at something.

But Cork didn't lose. They scored a shock win which in retrospect is one of the pivotal results of modern hurling. The win was to set up that most traditional of fixtures, a Cork-Kilkenny All-Ireland final. Cork won that and since then they, Kilkenny and Tipperary have divided 13 titles between them. The fallowest spell in the history of the big three has been followed by what is easily their most dominant ever.

Kilkenny have been responsible for most of those titles but there were another couple of crowns for Cork to reassure their supporters that it's in the natural course of things for Cork to win All-Irelands every few years. And that's how that most confident bunch of followers from that most confident of counties will be feeling this morning. The days when Clare, Offaly and Wexford ruled the roost now seem like something of a historical aberration, all the more wonderful for their once-in-a-lifetime quality.

Should Cork win today those who believe in the overwhelming power of tradition will have their belief justified. It won't matter that they haven't won a minor All-Ireland since 2001 or an under 21 title since 1998, they can still come good at senior level by virtue of simply being Cork and being led by a man like Jimmy Barry-Murphy who embodies their winning tradition.

Should Clare win, on the other hand, there is every chance it will usher in a new democratic age. Their plethora of talented young players would lead you to believe that a victory today will be followed by another couple in the next four or five years. And that it would drive Limerick, Galway and Dublin on to follow in their footsteps.

While his opposite number seems to hover above the fray and rarely displays any emotion, Davy Fitz can seem to be perpetually tormented and driven on by paranoia, grievance and the memory of past slights.

But perhaps that's the kind of manager you need when you've been underdogs for so long. Cyril Farrell and Ger Loughnane also burned with indignation at the sense of entitlement of the big three, their insouciance about victory, the condescension they exuded towards the lesser counties.

Much of this is in the eye of the beholder. Nicky English probably wasn't laughing at Clare at all 20 years ago. But you can see why they thought he was. Like Loughnane, Fitzgerald knows how to turn a historical inferiority complex into fuel for the motivational fire. A figure like that is impossible to imagine at the head of Cork hurling. Jimmy Barry-Murphy's self-assurance is born out of the confidence a county gains from having 30 All-Ireland hurling titles on the board. You couldn't imagine him as Clare manager.

Both men are underestimated. Jimmy Barry because his coolness precludes the kind of self-promotion often confused with ability in the modern age. And Davy Fitz because his melodramatic emotionalism masks an exceptional astuteness as a tactician, as JBM's sangfroid hides his.

There seems to be very little between the two teams in today's final. And that's why though there are magnificent players on both teams, Bugler, Kelly, Galvin, Collins and Ryan for Clare, Kearney, Horgan, O'Neill, Harnedy and Nash for Cork, it may well come down to the decision-making and nous of these two very different managers.

Whoever wins will have performed one of the great managerial feats of modern times. Barry-Murphy in restoring a county riven by internal strife to a place at the top, Fitzgerald by doing the apparently impossible in emulating Ger Loughnane.

Above all, they'll have triumphed in one of the greatest hurling championships there's ever been.

The aristocrat or the revolutionary?

Take your pick.

Sunday Independent

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