False dawns and rock bottoms... reviewing a decade where the Cork hurlers missed out on Liam McCarthy

False dawns and rock bottoms... reviewing a decade where the Cork hurlers missed out on Liam McCarthy
A dejected Shane Kingston at Croke Park. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Three Munster titles were the highlights of a decade when Cork failed to lift Liam MacCarthy even once writes Eoin Keane...

IT seems morosely fitting that after 10 years of turbulence and toil, Cork’s decade would come an abrupt halt at 49 games. One game short of an even 50, 70 minutes shy of another crack at the title.

In hindsight, however, we’d have taken one less, had a certain Domhnall O’Donovan stuck to his day job as a diligent, unremarkable corner-back and not gone rogue under the cover of the Cusack Stand. So forty-nine games it is, 49 games on which we’ve had time to reminisce and ruminate from the high-stools over the long winter. We were back, we were miles off, we were back again, we were years away. The fickleness of sport encapsulated through one team; hurling’s hokey-pokey. And that’s what it’s all about.

When Kilkenny overpowered an insipid Cork team last July, it marked the cessation of a decade in which a collection of hurlers from Leeside have been unable to transpose their provincial prowess onto Jones’ Road, where the air is closer and the stakes are higher.

The aridity of the past ten years on a national level has been well documented at this stage, it being the first time that Cork have failed to win an All-Ireland since the 1880s. It is unknown whether that particular crop of hurlers was similarly labelled by pundits as the flakiest team in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Of course, we could always look at Cork’s recent past as the proverbial glass half-full of Munster Championships. When you consider the wealth of competition in the province over the past 10 years and that all five participants have contested recent All-Ireland finals, three Munsters is a decent haul in any man’s language.

Only Tipperary have played in, or won more finals. In fact, they are the only county to emerge from the decade with a better head-to-head record against The Rebels in provincial competition.

Cork’s two successes over the Premier County however, stick out as high-points; the opening-round victories in 2010 and 2017 conspicuous as games where the prevailing mood in the immediate aftermath was that Cork were finally turning a corner.

There is something particularly galling about looking at Cork’s Munster record against Clare, the solitary defeat coming last year in what eventually transpired to be a dead-rubber.

Naturally, any semblance of satisfaction gleaned from our Munster dominance is completely sullied by 2013 and the one that got away.

Winning battles but ultimately losing the war, a microcosm of the decade in itself.

However, it is impossible to argue that Munster gold carries the same weight as it did ten years ago, especially when you consider the loftier ambitions of its contestants.

When Limerick finally scratched their provincial itch in July 2013, Clare remained as the only county enduring a lengthy fallow spell. Two months later of course, a monsoon would remedy that particular drought. The Munster successes of 2014 and 2017 will linger long in the memories of Cork supporters.

Saying goodbye to the old concrete coliseum added an extra layer of emotion and joyousness when defeating Limerick in ’14, not to mention the atonement for the year previous. The win over Clare three years later brought with it a different kind of emotion, an excited feeling that a sleeping giant was finally awaking from its slumber. By the time the dust settled on 2018 however, Munster medals had already begun to feel a little lighter.

Cork’s record outside of Munster, while accurate reflection of their current status in the game also illustrates the dearth of competition at the very highest level. Cork have been involved in 10 qualifier games since 2010, winning eight, which suggests that the navigation through the championship backwaters isn’t all that precarious. Hurling’s aristocracy has effectively remained a closed shop, with less than a dozen teams competing for six places at the top table. 

Consequently, over the past decade, only twice did Cork fail to reach the quarter-final stage, despite their obvious limitations throughout that period. The paucity of success from this position, three wins at the last-six stage of competition (one of which came against Antrim) and a solitary semi-final victory, remains a significant sticking point when evaluating the success of this team. Eleven counties have reached the last-six stage of the All-Ireland championship since 2010.

In that period, all our Munster brethren have outperformed us, while only Dublin, Wexford, Laois and Antrim hold inferior win percentages from the quarter-finals onwards. Six All-Ireland semi-finals against six different opponents have come and gone in the intervening years, the victory over Dublin in 2013 standing out among a litany of agonising defeats.

Yet it doesn’t take much to imbue the Cork hurling fraternity with belief. Just over 10 years ago, after Tipperary and Kilkenny had played out a battle of almost gladiatorial intensity in the final game of the ‘00s, Cork supporters pondered solemnly how far their own county were from such elevated heights.

The following May, the same supporters glided blissfully back down the Centre Park Road, having just witnessed Aisake Ó hAilpín devour a young Pádraic Maher without salt.

The Rebels were back! 

A few false dawns later, a couple of rock-bottoms down the line and here we are again, looking upwards, our two greatest rivals perched at seemingly unattainable heights, expectation levels low but infused with hope. 

Bring on the next decade. Bring on next May.

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