IN 1987 St Flannan’s College Ennis won the Dr Harty Cup and All-Ireland Colleges title with what is considered one of the greatest Flannan’s teams.
There was an influx of boarders from other counties on that Flannan’s team but Clare were still considered to have a really strong minor team that season. Before Flannan’s hammered St Kieran’s in that 1987 All-Ireland final in Birr, Shannon Comprehensive School emphatically secured the All-Ireland Colleges ‘B’ title.
Five days later, Clare played Cork in the Munster minor championship in Kilmallock and lost by five points.
“We were as good as Cork but we never performed,” wrote Anthony Daly, who played on those Flannan’s and Clare minor teams, in his autobiography. “Those players who had meant nothing to us when they were wearing North Mon or Middleton CBS jerseys suddenly seemed better and bigger hurlers when they had Cork jerseys on their backs.”
That aura that Cork always seemed to carry was as much about getting inside the heads of the opposition than the confidence it infused in their own players.
“When I was young, I travelled to loads of Clare-Cork underage matches,” says Daly. “Clare teams would push Cork to the absolute limit, but they could never beat them.
"I remember having a sense travelling to those matches that even if Clare were two points up coming down the stretch, that something would happen.”
Daly lived that reality first hand a year later when he was corner-back on the Clare U21 team which met Cork in the 1988 Munster U21 semi-final in Kilmallock.
Clare looked to have Cork beaten but Cork caught them with a late goal. And Cork went on to hammer Limerick and Kilkenny by an aggregate of 29 points en route to another All-Ireland U-21 title.
The Cork hurlers always carried that aura but the first team to begin stripping it away was Daly’s Clare team. Cork might not have had the same volume of marquee players at that time but Clare defeated Cork in four successive championships over a six-year period in the 1990s.
That Clare team was different but they also set a new standard for every other side to follow.
Cork regrouped to win three All-Irelands between 1999 and 2005 but every other team was catching up.
And once they did, Cork no longer carried the same aura anymore.
“Somewhere along the line, we got tougher,” says Daly now. “And Cork got softer.”
As counties got more organised, Cork stagnated. When the Cork senior players were forced to fight for better standards, they went on strike.
In the early years, when they were still driven by massive leaders, those battles made Cork stronger. Yet as the years passed, the strikes became more damaging.
“There’s no doubt that the strikes impacted on how other teams perceived them,” says Daly, who managed against Cork with Clare and Dublin teams. “The same fear wasn’t there of playing Cork. It was another form of that Cork aura being torn down.”
When Cork released their five-year football plan recently, restoring that ‘Corkness’ was a significant part of the report.
“Corkness,” said Tracey Kennedy “is that air of confidence just on the right side of arrogance – an unparalleled pride and our insatiable desire for Cork to be the best at absolutely everything.”
Brian Cuthbert said that Cork had “lost our Corkness”.
That may apply more to football than hurling but the manner of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Limerick underlined once more how serious teams are not afraid of Cork anymore.
That has as much to do with the professionalism and mindset of particular teams, as opposed to the standards and mindset of Cork teams, but Cork are desperate to rediscover that aura.
They very well may in time but the big difference now is that outside teams will no longer look on any perceived or future Cork brilliance or dominance with the same historical significance once attached to that Cork aura.
The arrival of some outstanding young players has helped return some of that swagger to Cork hurling. Tipperary would never fear Cork but last year’s All-Ireland U21 final proved that Cork’s swagger and brilliance will no longer carry Cork like it did for so long.
Whatever way Cork internally perceive themselves, success, especially All-Ireland success, is the only real way to return that ‘Corkness’ to the county. Yet Cork must also grasp one hard reality to this argument; making the game strong in the city again will be one of the easiest ways of doing so.
While the spread and reach of hurling has been great for the county, with clubs from every corner now represented on Cork teams, the demise of the city has been a factor in the dilution of that ‘Corkness’.
The city clubs always produced iconic players but those same players also had that swagger and arrogance about them that only city players can really possess. Irrespective of how good some of the players Cork have produced from the different divisions over the last two decades, they don’t have that brashness of city players.
The phrase that the Cork senior hurlers were only half-dressed without a certain volume of city players may have been offensive to other clubs but there is merit in it.
For decades in Cork, the country clubs used to view the big city clubs in the same way that Daly and other counties thought about Cork. ‘We will never beat that crowd. We’re not confident enough or cute enough to get one over them.’
The days of the Glen, the ‘Barrs and the Rockies carving up county titles for fun have long passed but with half the county’s population living in or around the city, Cork need to start making their city clubs strong again.
Whether they like to admit so or not, the aura attached to Cork was always around their hurlers.
And with the big city clubs no longer having that aura, that’s one of the primary reasons Cork have lost their ‘Corkness’.