Grip switch saved seconds
THE earliest recollection Jimmy Barry Murphy has of Wayne Sherlock is from a schoolboy soccer match in which Sherlock's team were pitted against that of his own son Brian, now a professional at Bury. Officials in Blackrock, meanwhile, trace their first Sherlock sighting to a Gaelic football match while he was still in primary school. And hurling? Well, he played that too.
The hurling prospered in time and would eventually overtake the other two but not as readily as you may think. His father placed the first hurl in his hand, though Joe Sherlock never played himself and the family couldn't say it was in the blood. Joe hailed from St Finbarr's bailiwick, before his wife Mary and their two sons uprooted to Mahon around 20 years ago when it was emerging as a sprawling maze of working class estates.
From the off young Wayne held the hurl left hand on top and was none the wiser until the Rockies got hold of him. He'd hurled for a while with Ballinure, the junior club in Mahon, but his talent was too big to escape the attentions of the oldest hurling club in Cork a few miles down the road. Once signed up he was in good hands. Former Cork and Rockies' hurler Pat Moylan set about changing his grip. It took the best part of three years before he could safely say it was instinctive but he managed it. He appreciates the effort now.
"For years he (Moylan) kept saying to me, we must change your grip, you're losing two or three seconds. And I was kind of saying: 'What's he on about? Two or three seconds? I didn't understand it at the time.' And he saw it and in fairness it's after improving me."
'His first year for Cork was absolutely sensational. It was a seamless transition for him and he was man-of-the-match a few times for Cork that year'
It wasn't easy but he was single-minded enough to do it. "You're a young fella, a teenager, and maybe thinking everyone is down on you. Maybe I thought he was down on me but I've a lot to thank him for, cos three seconds in inter-county is a lot. And maybe if I stayed with the other grip, I probably wouldn't be playing with Cork. Like, small things do make a difference."
Blackrock was a wonderful environment for a player like Sherlock to mature into a top hurler. But he had to have sufficient self-discipline and will to make it count. That was never a problem. The club's website lists a nine-point code of conduct for juveniles stressing the principles of fair play and good behaviour. Sherlock fitted effortlessly into the groove. "The single greatest attribute Wayne had," says Jim Hennebry, another early influence, "was that he listened, he paid attention."
Along with Pat Roche they worked with him through the early teens but he suffered rejection at 14 when he failed to make the county team while others off the Blackrock team were called up. At least some of this was due to the school he went to in Mahon not having a hurling heritage. The others boys chose North Mon. When a furious Roche contacted one of the selectors he was told: "He'll never make a hurler, he holds the hurley in the wrong hand."
Cork, like all great bastions, is rife with such prejudice. "I'd no tradition," says Sherlock. "Maybe I'd to work harder to get recognised, I still do feel I've to work hard to keep my performances to a level. You've to do a bit on your own. You'd see some natural hurlers who can put down a hurley for two or three weeks and they'd be grand. But I feel I've to work on my hurling and train hard."
At Blackrock it took him time to win medals. They lost finals up through the ranks until he finally won a minor championship at 16. By then he had mastered a new grip and made the Cork U-16 team, winning a Munster title playing centre-back, as Blackrock smoothed the rough edges and fired his ambition. "The first thing I was told when I started playing with Blackrock U-13s was that the reason we were there was to one day win a senior county; no matter what you win underage the most important thing is to win a senior with Blackrock."
And yet Barry Murphy and his selectors overlooked him in 1995 while in charge of the Cork minors, the year they won the All-Ireland. The following year the Cork minor team he played on lost to Tipperary in Munster but in the next two years he won All-Ireland U-21 medals and increased his profile. By then he was hurling senior for Blackrock. In 1999 he was drafted into the Cork senior squad and played a few league games but was surprised to make the championship team that met Waterford in the first round.
"I think I played three league matches that year and I didn't play particularly well. I thought, yeah, maybe I might make it in a couple of years, if I trained hard and stuff." It only dawned on him how close he was when he saw his name mentioned in a local newspaper as one of three contestants for the right half back position. He hadn't played there for Cork before but Barry Murphy believed in him.
"We couldn't get over how easily he matured," says Barry Murphy. "He'd been playing very well for Blackrock and Tom Cashman had been on to me for a good while before that. I've never seen him play a bad game. His first year for Cork was absolutely sensational. He's a serious competitor, very determined. It was a seamless transition for him and he was man-of-the-match a few times for Cork that year."
He's 26 now. In 1999 he was one of six new players drafted into the Cork team for the Waterford match in what was Barry Murphy's fourth year in charge. The pressure on Cork was immense, much of it pressing down on the manager. Sherlock marked Ken McGrath on his debut in Thurles and after an unsteady start settled into the match, conceding two points in total. They won - to Barry Murphy's relief - and the ball started to roll. In the Munster final, facing a Clare team chasing its third provincial title on the trot, they won again, the county's first Munster success since 1992. Sherlock was Cork's best player.
The All-Ireland title crowned a great year for Sherlock but it has been frustrating at inter-county level since. In the vacuum the club has been offering ample compensation. The county senior title won in '99, the first since 1985, was followed by further wins in 2001 and 2002. But last year they lost the final to Newtownshandrum when he was hoping to lead the club to an historic third county championship in a row, having been captain each time.
This cuts to the quick. When you ask him if losing to Kilkenny last September was the toughest defeat of his career to take he puts the loss to Newtown a month later on a par. Even though they were well beaten, Sherlock remained defiant to the end, sweeping up balls and delivering them back on the Newtown defence. Nobody can recall him having a bad match for Blackrock.
For Cork he's had some games, or spells within matches, where forwards have troubled him - but not many. In the first half of the 2000 Munster final Brian O'Meara unsettled him sufficiently for the Cork selectors to make a switch, the Tipperary player's power and surging runs giving Sherlock plenty discomfort. This came after the first round win over Limerick and a Sherlock performance described by Barry Murphy afterwards as "extraordinary." In the shock defeat to Offaly later that year he was one of Cork's better players.
'We know they're physical but we're going to have to try and stand up
to them, be as strong as they are'
Again, he was outstanding against Limerick when they went down in 2001 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and captained the county a year later. In the league final he was moved across on Eddie Brennan who was boring huge holes in the Cork defence in the opening quarter. Immediately, Sherlock began bossing the duel and Brennan faded out of the match. He did it, almost tauntingly, with pure hurling. But the season nosedived after that and soon he was embroiled in a strike that acted as the motivational springboard to their latest resurgence.
Last year brought some mixed form. He wasn't happy with his display against Wexford in the drawn match because Rory Jacob won too much ball. He feels Eoin Kelly won too much off him in Killarney this year as well. In the 2003 Munster final he was placed on John Mullane when the Waterford attacker started like a raging bull. But Mullane scored two of his goals while Sherlock was his assigned marker. In none of the five years he's hurled has he managed to win an All-Star. But it is surely only a matter of time even though competition for places in defence is severe.
The doggedness in him was illustrated in other ways. In the last few years he had been trying to balance unhelpful shift-work arrangements with the demands of an inter-county career. Employed by Pfizer, a pharmaceuticals manufacturer, he only recently converted to a regular work pattern. He sometimes went straight into a shift after an away league match on a Sunday, working through the night, and Donal O'Grady and others recommended a change of job. But he saw a future in the one he had and knew that eventually he would be granted a more accommodating working cycle.
Gaelic football, which he refuses to quit, remains an active pursuit despite O'Grady's reservations and it cost him vital weeks of training before the first round against Limerick when he picked up a shoulder injury. The football team is St Michael's and they've been senior since winning the intermediate in 1998, a medal he treasures as much as any of the others. They've also arranged a courtesy car but his loyalty to them was secure long before that.
Since winning the 1999 All-Ireland he has moved back to right corner back, supplanting Fergal Ryan, his Rockies' team-mate. In the full-back line his policing has been invaluable to Cork even if he has had to sacrifice some expression. Canon O'Brien, the former Cork manager, is credited with placing him there.
"I would hate to be marking him," says Barry Murphy. "He has this ability to collect the ball close to the ground and he's very hard to get scores off."
They are hoping to reignite the fire in Cork that Barry Murphy set ablaze. "Maybe the last few performances against Wexford and Antrim were a little bit false because we started so well and after that we did a few stupid things, maybe got a bit complacent," says Sherlock. "I think we're going in to give it a good 70 minutes; 20 minutes against Kilkenny won't do."
Is he hopeful they've improved? "We've upped the pace of the game we were playing, (we're) trying to bring more speed into the game. It's worked so far. Wexford were probably a bit like ourselves but Kilkenny are completely different, they're going to be hitting you hard so it's going to be a draining game as well. We know they're physical but we're going to have to try and stand up to them, be as strong as they are.
"We know what it feels like to win one, most of us do, and we know what it feels to lose one. So hopefully that will help us. Players felt bad last year, they don't want to go through that again. It is a bad feeling. You feel like you've let people down, Cork people who spent money and stuff going up to watch, and the players you're playing with as well."
They had a surprise presentation for Sherlock on Monday evening last in the Ravensdale estate where he grew up with his parents and brother John. He'd been over visiting his mother when the neighbours ambushed him, kids milled around and he received a good luck plaque. As they'd done last year. You can tell how much it means to him.
"Down at my mother's house, the neighbours have put up a load of banners and stuff," he remarks. "It's kind of embarrassing in one way but when you think about it, in fairness, they didn't have to do it and they did it."
He hopes to be back there soon. With something in return.