Rebels with a cause taking on Wexford made summer 2003 pure hurling magic

Rebels with a cause taking on Wexford made summer 2003 pure hurling magic
Setanta Ó hAilpín leaves Wexford players in his wake at Croke Park in 2003. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

WHAT a summer it was. 

Joe Deane, Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Seán Óg hurling like it was 1999 again. Setanta, Ronan Curran and John Gardiner swaggering across Semple Stadium and then Croke Park. Donal Óg Cusack moving from the bitterness of the strike the previous winter to leading the rebellious Rebels all the way to September.  

Diarmuid O'Sullivan battling Larry Murphy. Picture: Damien Eagers/SPORTSFILE
Diarmuid O'Sullivan battling Larry Murphy. Picture: Damien Eagers/SPORTSFILE

Before they could form that Frazier-Ali dynamic with Kilkenny, they had to get past Wexford. There was a romantic connection between the counties, harking back to the 1950s when the Rackards halted Christy Ring's bid for a ninth All-Ireland, Cork's three-in-a-row team of the '70s and a league final trilogy in 1993.  

In August 2003, it ended Cork 2-20 Wexford 3-17, a game every bit as sensational as the scoreline suggests. Their most dramatic championship collision. 

Veteran midfielder Rory McCarthy's last-gasp goal stole a draw for the underdogs on that scorching day at a heaving Croke Park. Yet Donal O'Grady's side were in trouble for long spells, which meant few quibbled with the result after a thriller with 10 clear-cut goal chances. 

Now available from the GAA on YouTube, the encounter holds up as one of the great All-Ireland semi-finals. With the lockdown, you'll have plenty of time to check it out. A warning though, it'll make you wonder what might have been if Aussie Rules didn't lure away Setanta.

Watching back, the hurling isn't as structured. Cork hadn't yet adopted the Newtown-style running game and Jerry O'Connor was a late sub, before his development into a three-time All-Star midfielder. Tom Kenny was stationed at wing-back. 

There is still quite a bit of ground-hurling, especially from Wexford. And the long-range free-taking isn't as clinical, which leads to more dropping ball around the square. 

Joe Deane hammers home his goal. Picture: Eddie O'Hare 
Joe Deane hammers home his goal. Picture: Eddie O'Hare 

Joe Deane and Setanta Ó hAilpín benefited from this approach because, despite the towering Darragh Ryan outmuscling Deane a few times, they hit 1-3 from play apiece. In what was just his third start, Setanta was already a fan favourite and you can hear the buzz of excitement from the crowd when he collects the sliotar in the first minute and zips into space only to shoot wide.

That was a theme of the contest, which saw Cork hit seven wides to wide in the first half and 14 to six overall. John Gardiner arrowed over four great points but also had four wides, preempting his struggles in the All-Ireland against Kilkenny a month later. 

Deane had a late free off target and Niall McCarthy had three second-half wides, though he was fouled for two converted frees and also put Cork two ahead entering the fourth quarter, fist-pumping emphatically to a Rebel roar.

Niall McCarthy and the crowd celebrate a key point. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Niall McCarthy and the crowd celebrate a key point. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

A Paul Codd green flag had given Wexford the first-half initiative and early in the second half they were 1-14 to 0-11 up. Backboned by a share of their heroes from 1996 like Damien Fitzhenry, Liam Dunne and Larry O'Gorman, with Ger Canning jokingly dubbing them "Zimmer-frame United" on the commentary, they hurled so economically for long spells. 

Cork were pretty lively in the opening 10 minutes but wasted the bulk of that possession. With Mitch Jordan and Rory Jacob on song, Diarmuid O'Sullivan had to switch into full-back, Pat Mulcahy out to the corner. Ben O'Connor couldn't get on the ball for much of the first half, unsurprisingly Timmy McCarthy worked himself into the ground and was injured in the lead up to Deane raising a green flag.

While Kenny wasn't as dominant as he'd been when getting Man of the Match in the Munster final against Waterford, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was all action and nearly got his first championship point (it came in the 2005 quarter-final win over the Déise at Croker). Incidentally Seán Óg, and Codd and Fitzhenry, used hurleys with Paddy Power sponsored logos for the occasion, which caused controversy the following day.

Wing-back Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, with a Paddy Power logo on his hurley, bursts up field against Wexford in 2003. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Wing-back Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, with a Paddy Power logo on his hurley, bursts up field against Wexford in 2003. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Once Ronan Curran got into his rhythm he plucked down his share of puck-outs from sky and Gardiner, then just 20, hurled a lot of ball throughout.

That season, there was a magical feeling on Leeside as if the hurlers were preordained to lift Liam McCarthy after the strike. Certainly felt that way when they outscored the Yellow Bellies 2-6 to 0-1 to go five points up after Deane's lethal goal. 

At this juncture, Cyril Farrell treated us to one many of his memorable zingers about the Rebel revival that summer: "Cork are coming like a steam engine. The trains might have stopped on the way up from Mallow but they're on a roll here now!"

John Gardiner bursts through against Wexford. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
John Gardiner bursts through against Wexford. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Wexford were capable of anything in the noughties, shocking Waterford the month before, then scraping past Antrim in the quarter-final. They could have died off here.

Yet in the 60th minute Mitch Jordan's gave them a lifeline. Two points between them again. 

Cork wasted point chances but John Conran's charges threatened goals. It took a hook by The Rock to deny Larry Murphy; Donal Óg had to slalom through yellow and purple geansaís all the way past the 45 to clear his lines entering injury time.

Then Alan Browne split the posts from a narrow angle out on the right and, three points up in the 72nd minute, Cork looked safe. McCarthy thought otherwise.

Some game.

Rory McCarthy celebrates after his goal in injury time grabbed a draw. Picture: Dan Linehan
Rory McCarthy celebrates after his goal in injury time grabbed a draw. Picture: Dan Linehan

Scorers for Cork: J Deane 1-7 (0-4 f), Setanta Ó hAilpín 1-3, J Gardiner 0-4, A Browne 0-2, N McCarthy, B O’Connor, T McCarthy, M O’Connell 0-1 each.

Wexford: P Codd 1-5 (0-3 f, 0-1 70), M Jacob 1-4, R McCarthy 1-0, A Fenlon 0-3 (0-2 sl), L Murphy, M Jordan 0-2 each, R Jacob 0-1.

CORK: D Óg Cusack; W Sherlock, P Mulcahy, D O’Sullivan; T Kenny, R Curran, Sean Óg Ó hAilpín; M O’Connell, J Gardiner; B O’Connor, N McCarthy, T McCarthy; Setanta Ó hAilpín, J Deane, A Browne (c).

Subs: J O’Connor for T McCarthy (63), S McGrath for N. McCarthy (71).

WEXFORD: D Fitzhenry; D Guiney, D Ryan, D O’Connor; D Stamp, D Ruth, L Dunne; R McCarthy, L O’Gorman; A Fenlon, L Murphy, M Jacob; M Jordan, P Codd (c), R Jacob.

Subs: T Mahon for O’Gorman (55), C McGrath for Murphy (72).

Referee: A MacSuibhne (Dublin).

Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

CORK were absolutely ruthless in the replay of course, which finished 3-17 to 2-7. 

If they'd struggled with the six-week layoff between the Munster final and All-Ireland semi, the six-day gap here ensured they were never going to be caught, despite leaking a couple of early goals.

Diarmuid O’Sullivan and Ronan Curran dominated defensively, with Ben O’Connor the pick of the forwards. 

Ben O'Connor hit 0-4 in the replay. Picture: Eddie O'Hare 
Ben O'Connor hit 0-4 in the replay. Picture: Eddie O'Hare 

Incidentally it was a similar sceál in 2004, when Cork trounced the Leinster champions 1-27 to 0-12. Jerry O'Connor lanced over 0-6 from midfield and Tom Kenny 1-1.

Scorers for Cork (2003 replay): J Deane 1-5 (0-4 f), T McCarthy 1-1, A Browne 1-0, B O’Connor 0-4, J Gardiner 0-3 (0-1 f, 0-2 70), M O’Connell 0-2, Setanta Ó hAilpín, N McCarthy 0-1 each.

Wexford: M Jordan 1-2, L Murphy 1-0, P Codd 0-3 f, M Jacob, A Fenlon 0-1 each.

Dual legend Teddy McCarthy among the Cork crowd. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Dual legend Teddy McCarthy among the Cork crowd. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

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