IN the Kilkenny team photograph before the 2002 league final, Andy Comerford is standing at the far left in the back row.
Noel Hickey is the nearest player to him but Comerford has his back turned to Hickey’s right shoulder, he is leaning on his hurley with both hands and is staring down towards the other end of the pitch, facing away from the camera.
Comerford seems detached and almost dislocated from the group, but that was the personal message he wanted to transmit. He was there, but not really there.
Comerford was the team captain but standing for the photograph was a compromise he had to reach to secure his place that day. After an emergency meeting of the GPA eight days earlier, players from Cork and Kilkenny went home with a plan to avoid the pre-match team photograph and march the parade with their socks down and their shirts out. In Cork, the mood was fomenting with the slights and injustices that would lead to a strike.
Kilkenny though, were forced to wrestle with their conscience once word of the protest filtered back to management.
Comerford had arranged to ring Donal Óg Cusack at 9pm the Saturday before the game and Cusack was driving out of Midleton when Comerford called. He said that Cody had buried the issue, but that he was still going to protest. Along with seven Cork players, Comerford marched in the parade with his socks down and jersey out.
That incident left a deep mark in the psyche of that Cork squad. The relationship took a further poisonous turn with how Cork chose to interpret quotes from Peter Barry afterwards about honouring the jersey.
Barry always claimed that his words were taken out of context. In fact, he rang Cusack in November 2006 to try and clear up the matter.
Either way, Cork’s ill feeling for Kilkenny was long established by then. “For us, the business (from 2002) left a sour taste about Kilkenny,” Cusack once said. “We were disappointed in them.”
As the team bound closer together after the 2002 strike, Cork’s approach and identity as a group was defined by a strong-willed group of players who never really forgave Kilkenny for that event.
That motivation was critical to Cork beating Kilkenny in the 2004 All-Ireland final, but Kilkenny soon went looking for a similar edge.
Kilkenny had a beef with most counties but when they got a chance to stick it to Cork, they gave it to them harder than anyone else. Kilkenny made it their business to keep Cork down.
“When we met them in the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final, we didn’t just want to beat them,” wrote Jackie Tyrrell in his autobiography The Warrior’s Code. “We wanted to set them back for a decade.”
Kilkenny buried that great Cork team. Cork did exact some manner of revenge when defeating Kilkenny in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter final but a decade on from Kilkenny’s desire to set Cork back for a decade, it is interesting to reflect on the legacy that time left.
In the 13 seasons since the 2006 All-Ireland final, Cork and Kilkenny have met 15 times in league and championship; Kilkenny have won 11 of those games, Cork just four. In their history, Cork have never suffered a more difficult 10-15 year period against one of their oldest rivals.
The players have changed, but Kilkenny have still continued to beat Cork. When a young Cork team was coming under Jimmy Barry-Murphy in 2012, Kilkenny ruthlessly put them down in that year’s league final.
A year later in Nowlan Park, Cork led by three points after 50 minutes and were out-scored 0-9 to 0-1 in the next 20 minutes. For the opening round of the 2015 League, Kilkenny arrived in Páirc Uí Rinn without 13 of their All-Ireland winning panel and still beat a strong Cork team.
A year later Cork were the better side in Páirc Uí Rinn but even though they led by five points with 10 minutes remaining, they still lost. In their 2017 league meeting, Cork were outscored 0-11 to 0-5 in the second half.
Under Brian Cody, Kilkenny never take their foot off the gas, in any competition, whereas there were plenty of times when Cork looked like they could take or leave the league.
Cork were impressive when beating Kilkenny in the opening round of the 2018 league, but that evening demanded a performance because it was Cork’s first time playing in front of their own supporters in the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Yet when the sides met in this year’s league in Nowlan Park in January, Cork looked like a side not too bothered with the outcome. Cork didn’t have their strongest team out, but Kilkenny were down as many big names, including Cillian Buckley and Padraig Walsh, along with their Ballyhale Shamrocks contingent.
The sides haven’t met in the championship for six years now, but even though Cork won that match, the conditions are vastly different to what they were during most of that time; because Kilkenny are no longer the all-conquering and terrorising force of old.
Time and circumstance have diluted the bad blood between the counties. Of the Cork players who suffered badly at the hands of Kilkenny in the 2008 and 2010 All-Ireland semi-finals, only Eoin Cadogan and Patrick Horgan featured in those games while Anthony Nash was on the bench.
The same anger and desire for retribution is no longer as prevalent but those three players won’t be slow this week in reminding their team-mates of the bad times. It may only have been the league, but most of the current crew also know what it’s like to struggle to beat Kilkenny.
And Sunday is the ideal chance for Cork to stick it to Kilkenny now.