Cork's 1995 loss to Clare is a reminder of the cruel nature of knockout hurling

Cork's 1995 loss to Clare is a reminder of the cruel nature of knockout hurling
Alan Browne of Cork is consoled after the Munster semi-final loss to Clare in 1995 at the Gaelic Grounds. Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

BACK in 1995, deep into injury time of the Cork-Clare Munster hurling semi-final, Kevin Murray struck a goal which appeared to have won the game for Cork.

Two Cork supporters jumped the wire in the middle of the Gaelic Grounds — just in front of what is now the uncovered stand — and began making their way across the pitch in anticipated celebration.

They didn’t know that the drama was only beginning. From the puck-out, Clare forced a sideline cut.

Fergie Tuohy glided the ball into the square, which Ollie Baker touched to the net for the lead score.

Ollie Baker of Clare battles Fergal Ryan and Timmy Kelleher, Cork, in the 1995 Munster hurling semi-final at the Gaelic Grounds. Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan
Ollie Baker of Clare battles Fergal Ryan and Timmy Kelleher, Cork, in the 1995 Munster hurling semi-final at the Gaelic Grounds. Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

From Ger Cunningham’s puckout, Cork had a chance to land the equaliser, but the ball came back off the post before landing in Murray’s hand outside the square.

He went for goal, but Frank Lohan made a miraculous flick, the ball was cleared, and the final whistle blew.

By that stage, the two Cork supporters had made their way across the pitch but, by the time they reached the Mackey Stand, their bewildered look confirmed the craziness of those closing moments.

It also underlined the absolute drama and devastation of the old-style championship, where one flick defined more than just two teams entire season.

That victory was the launchpad of the Clare crusade which saw them go on to win three Munster titles and two All-Irelands in four seasons.

Yet after being hammered in successive Munster finals in 1993 and 1994, and training like US Navy Seals throughout the winter of 1994, many of the Clare players often said afterwards that the wheels would probably have come off the carriage if they had lost to Cork in 1995.

Ger Manley drives home Cork's first goal during the Munster Senior Hurling Championship semi-final against Clare at the Gaelic Grounds in 1995. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ger Manley drives home Cork's first goal during the Munster Senior Hurling Championship semi-final against Clare at the Gaelic Grounds in 1995. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

It’s a different time now.

Teams can lose two games in Munster and still qualify from the province. It is a much fairer system, particularly when teams put so much into their preparation, However, if there is to be a championship in 2020, it will probably see a return to straight knock-out.

Just like the old days.

Cork manager Kieran Kingston could see his side go back to the old ways of one-game knock-out championship this year. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Cork manager Kieran Kingston could see his side go back to the old ways of one-game knock-out championship this year. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Everything depends on how long it takes the HSE to conclude that the pandemic has peaked but, whenever there is a return to normality, it won’t be as easy as just blowing a whistle and beginning the championships.

With hundreds of thousands of people having lost their jobs, trying to reboot the economy will be the priority for the country. Packing out stadiums will play a part in reigniting the economy, but it won’t be as simple as just drawing up the fixtures and opening the gates.

Croke Park are also understandably reluctant to make any contingency plans on the basis of infringing on club fixtures. With the club month of April having already been wiped out, an anticipated tightened window for club games is largely dependent on how long a potential inter-county season might run.

The flipside is that, with smaller crowds at club matches, and with any return to large gatherings a long way off, the club championships could actually be given priority before the inter-county championships.

That would be difficult for county teams trying to access club players for county training, especially when an entire inter-county season could hinge on that first match.

Another option could be to stage a number of club games within a certain timeframe before opening up a window (similar to what is already in place in early May) before the inter-county championships begin.

Any potential windows look slim in a truncated season but, if the inter-county championship is knockout, a large number of players would soon be back with their clubs.

The timeframe is everything but, while county boards may have to tighten their local championships, a knock-out system at inter-county level would mean that club championships don’t necessarily have to follow a similar format.

It is also understood though, that the GAA haven’t completely given up on the possibility of reverting to a more recent format, with All-Ireland qualifiers included.

That would mean a return to the knockout system in the provinces before teams would then have one more shot to stay alive.

Again, it’s a question of time, because there will only be so much of it if the season resumes later than hoped.

On the other hand, while having a championship would help restore normality, it’s in the GAA’s interests to stage a season if they can; last year, the combined (index-linked) revenue from gate receipts and broadcast fees was over €50m.

And that doesn’t include commercial earnings, which are realistically also tied to fixture opportunity.

In an anticipated tight window, there has been talk of playing the hurling championship over five weekends. If the same model was applied to football, the championship could be run off in six weeks.

Yet how sustainable is that for teams, in terms of injuries and recovery? It would certainly suit the strong teams with the deep panels, particularly when every team won’t have had anything like the same level of collective training or preparatory time compared to the past.

With huge games taking place every weekend in both codes, the GAA’s marketing of the games would collapse because only a handful of those matches could be shown on live TV.

Still, this is an exceptional time and a knockout system in a tight window may be the only way to go.

It could lead to the kind of spellbinding drama seen in the Gaelic Grounds , but the passing of time certainly wouldn’t change the hardest reality of that knockout system — the pain of knowing your season is over after one match.

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