Rebel regime ready to make critics eat their words
Jimmy Barry-Murphy's men can build on recent progress and bring end to negativity fuelled by O hAilpin comments
SEAN Og O hAilpin categorised it as an inherent honesty and willingness to call things as he sees them but his questioning of why his clubmate John Gardiner was no longer on the Cork panel – accompanied by the comment that there were "guys there being called in from places I never heard of" – must be a leading contender for the Bad Judgment of the Year award.
He also observed that "there must be other reasons" why Gardiner was no longer aboard. In a few sentences, he had insulted "places I never heard off" and also left himself open to accusations of impugning the reputation of a Cork sporting God, since it was Jimmy Barry-Murphy's decision to omit Gardiner, a move that O hAilpin described as "ridiculous".
The interview appeared on the morning of the Cork-Clare Munster semi-final last month and went down very badly with a great many Leeside loyalists. O hAilpin explained this week that the interview took place well ahead of the publication but he stood over his comments about Gardiner.
There's no doubt that critical comments from a former star performer hit harder on the day of a big game than if they had appeared earlier.
Hurling supporters from outside Cork would have deduced from O hAilpin's comments that, for whatever reason, an outstanding talent was being shunned, players from obscure clubs were being used and, at a broader level, the overall scene within the county wasn't anything like as progressive as elsewhere.
Whatever about the latter point, O hAilpin's views of the panel, and the management that put it together, annoyed many in the county. It also fed into a perception elsewhere that Cork were making no progress. This was despite evidence to the contrary being readily available.
Clare went into the Munster semi-final as strong favourites to beat Cork, largely on the basis of their two wins over the Rebels in this year's NHL. The first defeat certainly didn't reflect well on Cork, who squandered a five-point half-time lead and lost by six points; but the second loss was altogether different.
Clare beat them by two points after extra-time in the 1A relegation play-off – scarcely a sign that Cork were that far off the pace. Still, the negativity continued.
Indeed, for reasons which certainly bore no relation to results, they were regarded as All-Ireland no-hopers.
Even before the season started, mischief was spread across the Cork landscape. Eoin Cadogan's decision to opt for the footballers rather than the hurlers was portrayed as an indication that he had more belief in the big ball set-up and all that went with it.
The implication was that whereas the footballers were modern and on-trend, the hurlers were being led by a man from a different generation, who thought that what won All-Irelands in the 1990s could suffice again.
For instance, the whispering classes were aghast that the hurlers had no psychologist, as if it were an unpardonable sin of omission which would wreck the season.
Barry-Murphy's explanation for the absence of specialist mind gurus was simple: he reckoned there were enough All-Ireland medal winners in the management team to figure out what it took to be successful. He doesn't need to be told to "control the controllables" or the other jargon that passes for wisdom.
Still, he was represented as an old-fashioned manager, which was an insult to everything he stands for. It also showed a complete disregard for reality. But then this is the era of the herd mentality, so if the word goes out that something isn't quite right in a county, it becomes perceived wisdom in a matter of weeks.
Cork has had an added problem, caused by the unusual combination of All-Ireland wins and player unrest.
The All-Ireland title successes of 1999, 2004 and 2005 hoisted those who achieved them on to a lofty pedestal as high achievers on the pitch, while the high-profiles battles with the county board, which included strikes, identified them as tough men who would drive their own agenda.
As they came towards the end of their careers and left the panel – some by their own choice, others with a managerial push – it was inevitable their large presence in the background would become an issue.
It was against such a scenario that Cork's power-brokers looked to Jimmy Barry-Murphy, a unifying force with a proven track record, after the 2011 season ended with a heavy defeat by Galway in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
Since then, Cork have been a lot more efficient than popular opinion would have you believe. They reached the league final last year and while they lost heavily to Kilkenny, that's familiar territory for more than Cork.
Last year they were unlucky to lose to Tipperary by a point in the Munster semi-final but went on to reach the All-Ireland semi-final, where they lost by five points to Galway.
The winning margin flattered Galway, who were only three points ahead heading for stoppage time. Ten minutes earlier, Pa Cronin (pictured left) missed a goal chance, driving over the bar from close range.
A goal at that stage might well have been the catalyst for a Cork win. Still, Cork's season was portrayed as a failure despite reaching the last four in the championship and the last two in the league.
While Cork were relegated in April, there were still quite a few positives to take out of the campaign. They included a big win over Tipperary, draws with Galway and Waterford, and a very close call against Kilkenny at Nowlan Park on a day when they missed several chances.
Cork have enjoyed wins against Tipp, Waterford, Kilkenny, Clare, Dublin and Wexford over the last 17 months, so quite why they were so unfancied going into this year's championship is difficult to understand.
Granted, the injury bug which has bitten hard and leaves them without Brian Murphy and Paudie O'Sullivan tomorrow is a nuisance but, as O'Sullivan pointed out this week, there's a lot more depth to the panel than they have been given credit for.
Cork's difficulty in attracting popular support is underlined by the odds for tomorrow's final, which has them as marginal outsiders despite having a better 17-month record than Limerick.
Clearly, Limerick's win over Tipperary is being given more weight than Cork's success over Clare or their top-four finish in last year's championship.
It's an ideal scenario for Cork to take into a Munster final. It's also the perfect personal environment for JBM.
O hAilpin's view on his selection policy is probably shared by various others in Cork who have remained silent, but if Cork win tomorrow Barry-Murphy will have been more than vindicated.
It will also leave him entitled to ask why did it take so long for people to realise Cork were making solid progress? He won't bother, of course, but deep down it will be very satisfying to have led Cork to a first Munster title since 2006.
All the more so given the negativity that has been peddled by some elements in Cork.