TEN years ago next weekend, an aging and unfancied Cork team welcomed Tipperary to Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Aided by a man mountain at full-forward, it proved to be the last kick of a dying team.
The 2009 All-Ireland hurling final between Kilkenny and Tipperary is often remembered as one of, if not the greatest decider of all time, an enthralling and unparalleled blend of attrition and artisanry that left hurling’s challengers pondering how far their own counties were from such elevated heights. Cork were gone before August that year, a listless performance against Galway in the qualifiers putting an end to a forgettable season, tarnished once again by off-field skirmishes.
Since Cork’s rapid regression from a potential three-in-a-row winning team in ’06 to also-rans in ’09, Kilkenny had assumed control of hurling’s landscape as their own personal fiefdom. Tipperary were regarded as the most likely usurper of their throne.
Yet when Donal Óg Cusack’s autobiography, Come What May, hit the shelves that October, the dismissive attitude in the Cork camp towards the Premier County became apparent.
“If we have a modern history with Tipperary, it’s that we never really feared them”, wrote Cusack. “Mostly when we play them, we beat them and when we don’t, we know why. Three years in a row they have done us. Not great against a team we don’t truly rate.”
While the more explosive elements of the book’s contents, relating in particular to personal lives and Stepford Wives, allowed the iconoclastic goalkeeper’s remarks about their old Munster rivals to pale into insignificance, his comments encapsulated the old-school haughtiness that had been a feature of hurling on Leeside for over a century.
In Cusack’s mind, and in the mind of his colleagues, the consecutive defeats to Tipperary in ’07, ’08 and ’09 were mere aberrations owing to the perceived ineptitude of their manager, outliers to be disregarded when evaluating the dataset of Munster hurling’s hierarchy. Thus, when Liam Sheedy led his troops south in May 2010, he ought to have been wary of an ambush.
Cork performed admirably throughout the 2010 National League, defeating both Tipperary and Kilkenny en route to the final, under the stewardship of Denis Walsh, in his first full season at the helm. Despite the emergence of a cohort of young pretenders, namely Lorcán McLoughlin and Cian McCarthy as well as converted footballer Michael Cussen throughout the spring, Walsh sanctioned a vote of confidence in Cork’s venerated old guard for the championship opener.
Of the 15 players entrusted by the Cork management to prevent a fourth consecutive defeat to their provincial neighbours, only Eoin Cadogan, Patrick Horgan and Aisake Ó hAilpin hadn’t been involved in some capacity throughout the not too distant glory days.
Sheedy, on the other hand, opted for youth, handing debuts to Michael Cahill and Brian O’Meara, the latter of which hadn’t even featured in the league. If Tipperary were to announce themselves as the young protagonists in a new decade of hurling supremacy, they’d first have to expose Cork as yesterday’s men.
Since Aisake's return from Melbourne in the spring of 2009, he had become a mainstay at the edge of the square for Cork, a physically imposing target-man whose presence facilitated a tactical reinvention under Walsh. With aging legs inconducive to the running game that had been a central facet of Cork’s game for the best part of 10 years, a more direct approach needed to be incorporated into their offensive strategy.
Standing at 6' 6", Aisake acted as the perfect outlet for aerial bombardment and an ideal foil for the more refined talents of a young and wispy Patrick Horgan. Tasked with containing Ó hAilpín was a 21-year-old Pádraic Maher, an All-Star at full-back, though more accustomed to the freedom afforded him in the half-back line.
Maher had struggled the Na Piarsaigh man in a league game that April, beaten to possession on four occasions inside the opening 10 minutes before the full-forward was moved out the field. Tipperary had been forewarned.
On the morning of the game, on the other side of the world, the second youngest of the Ó hAilpín brothers scored three goals for Carlton in a 29-point victory over the West Coast Eagles. Back in Cork, Aisake could have matched it.
The game plan was simple. Cork moved the ball intelligently out of defence before delivering it into the isolated full-forward. After 10 minutes, Aisake outmuscled Maher to latch onto a high delivery into the square and forced a save from Brendan Cummins. Two minutes later, he fielded a laser-like delivery from Gardiner, compelling a hapless Maher to concede a penalty, from which Horgan duly obliged.
Ten minutes after that, Gardiner found Ó hAilpín again with yet another long, probing ball. Once more Horgan proved the benefactor. After 22 minutes and two goals, Maher was granted clemency and relocated to safer environs.
Paul Curran entered the bear-pit in his stead but as should have been patently obvious, this was not a one-man job. As Cork proceeded to rain more balls down onto the edge of the square, Aisake’s paw continued to act as the lightning rod, invariably drawing sparks.
He should have goaled on 57 minutes, skewing a ground-stroke just wide, after controlling a long ball inside from Jerry O’Connor. Two minutes later, Aisake finally raised the green flag to put Cork 10 ahead. In celebration, he flapped his arms by his side, a nod to his brother in Australia and a throw-back to the heady days of 2003 when we all too briefly became enchanted by another towering young forward who famously ‘didn’t do points’.
Of Cork’s final tally of 3-15, at least 3-3 was attributable, either directly or indirectly, to Aisake. Even if it seemed antonymous to everything they’d ever known, Cork had reverted to the old-school principles of the game. As did Tipp, who remained steadfast in their refusal to abandon hurling’s traditional ‘man-to-man’ ethos. From Cork’s perspective, the result undoubtedly justified the means.
But while the chaos exacted by the gargantuan full-forward remains the abiding memory of that game, it is worth remembering that Cork’s supporting cast governed every other sector of the field.
Cathal Naughton was starting only his sixth championship game, his inaugural posting in Cork’s engine-room. Paired with Tom Kenny, the duo dominated the middle third, eventually forcing the withdrawal of 2008 All-Star midfielder Shane McGrath.
Behind them, the ever-present troika of Gardiner, Curran and Seán Óg proved impenetrable, providing the launchpad for Cork’s attacks while maintaining a vice-like grip on Brendan Cummins’ puck-outs.
At full-back, Eoin Cadogan’s supremacy saw the young greenhorn O’Meara replaced at half-time. Eoin Kelly fared no better in the second half.
Cadogan ended the year with a Celtic Cross, albeit with the footballers. In what should have been another epoch of stability at full-back for Cork, his oscillation between the two codes meant that the position circulated between various incumbents, none of whom threatened to emulate the solidity offered by Diarmuid O’Sullivan.
Having bullied the eventual All-Ireland champions so emphatically, Aisake’s influence on games was never the same. No doubt having learnt from Sheedy’s mistakes, opposition managers ensured that no one player would be left exposed against the big man.
Cork left the Munster Championship behind them that year and their season culminated in a 12-point defeat to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final. Naughton never started another championship game for Cork. Aisake Ó hAilpín never again donned a red jersey.
It is easy to look back on the game now as the first of a number of false dawns that marked a decade of frustration, games in which a Rebel resurgence seemed possible, like the Munster opener against Clare in 2013 or the victory over Tipp in 2017.
In truth however, it was nothing more than an encore, one last barnstorming performance before the band broke up.