ANYTIME the term ‘Golden Age’ is mentioned in hurling, that period inevitably involves different, more novel counties.
Despite Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary winning seven All-Ireland between 1950-’60, that period is still heralded as hurling’s first ‘Golden Age’, primarily because of the emergence of Wexford as a serious force.
Wexford won three All-Irelands during that time (1955, 1956 and 1960) but Waterford’s annexing of the 1959 All-Ireland cemented that period as one of glorious breakthroughs.
The next ‘Golden Age’ didn’t arrive until the 1990s, when Offaly, Clare and Wexford won five All-Irelands between 1994-98.
Hurling thrives on such years and eras, especially in a sport that has been dominated by three counties winning 72% of the championships.
There is always an element of excitement and electricity when the ‘Big Three’ are no longer dominating. Last year’s Galway-Limerick final was even more novel considering it was the first time in 22 years that none of the Big Three have contested an All-Ireland for two years running.
That statistic was even more revealing given that Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary have been absent from two consecutive All-Ireland finals on just three other occasions in GAA history.
Hurling is now living through another ‘Golden Age’, and maybe its greatest period ever. Last year’s hurling championship was the most enthralling and memorable in living memory, while this summer could yet deliver the most open championship in the game’s history.
The last time the championship pack looked so strong was back in 1999, when nine teams would have set out believing they could win an All-Ireland.
The big difference back then though, was that the championship was still a knockout system and most of the contenders had fallen by mid-June. Many of those teams could have won an All-Ireland if they had the opportunities to recover, regroup and organically develop like teams can in the current system.
Cork would have set off in that 1999 season believing they could win an All-Ireland, not just because they always did, or because they had a young team based around successive All-Ireland U-21 teams, or because they had won a League title the previous year. But primarily because tradition suggested that, despite their youth, Cork could always win an All-Ireland, no matter how open the race was.
Despite that first ‘Golden Age’ in the 1950s, Cork won three-in-a-row during that period, while their epic 1956 final meeting with Wexford produced some of the game’s most iconic final memories; Art Foley’s save from Christy Ring, and Ring being carried off the field afterwards by Wexford players.
Despite Cork enduring one of their most barren ever periods in the 1990s, Cork still muscled in on that ‘Golden Age’ by winning the first and last All-Irelands of that decade.
The current ‘Golden Age’ though, has been a totally different experience for Cork. They have been highly competitive, winning three of the last five Munster titles.
Cork could have won the 2013 All-Ireland title but they face into this summer with another kind of pressure to the one already heaped on their shoulders; if Cork don’t win the 2019 All-Ireland, it will be the first time that the county has failed to win an All-Ireland in a single decade (apart from the 1880s but there were only two All-Irelands played in that decade).
Cork could, and probably should, have won last year’s All-Ireland. Cork are certainly good enough to win this year’s title. But will they get out of Munster?
That’s the conundrum facing all five counties within the province. The pressure is massive but Cork have proven themselves to be a really solid Munster team over the last two seasons.
Cork have any amount of advantages heading in to this championship; serious pace; massive firepower; their style of play suits the players they have.
The return of Alan Cadogan from last season is another massive boost to that scoring potential. Conor Lehane’s form for Midleton against Glen Rovers in the recent club championship suggests he could be about to have a big summer.
Their young players should be getting stronger and better again, while Cork should be as driven as any other county given the hurt and disappointment suffered in successive All-Ireland semi-finals.
Some of those positives though, are offset by the perennial question marks around Cork; is their defence good enough to win an All-Ireland? Is the team ruthless enough? Is the panel deep enough to go the distance throughout the summer?
Despite so much young talent in the county around the 20-21 mark, very few of those young players have come on stream yet. With Colm Spillane injured, Darren Browne may be corner-back for Cork’s opening game against Tipperary. But it will otherwise be mostly the same names which have appeared over the last two years.
Can Cork really win an All-Ireland with a panel that looks shallower than many other squads? In the course of eight championship games last summer John Kiely introduced no fewer than 16 individual substitutes. Limerick won the All-Ireland as much by possessing the best panel as by being the best team.
Cork don’t have that luxury but they still could have reached last year’s All-Ireland final in the same circumstances. Limerick’s greater panel told in extra-time but they wouldn’t have had a chance to run their bench if Cork had been more clinical and ruthless in the last 10 minutes of normal time.
Injuries to key players were another huge factor but Cork failed to manage the game properly when they had it in their grasp. And developing better game-management late on in Croke Park is another huge priority for this group.
The key for Cork though is to try and get back there first. And if they can, then they have a solid chance of winning an All-Ireland that the Cork hurling public are desperate to secure.
Especially in this decade. And particularly in this Golden Age.