Is the spirit returning to Cork hurling?

Is the spirit returning to Cork hurling?
Stephen Bennett of Waterford in action against Cork players, from left, Colm Spillane, Killian Burke, Dean Brosnan and Damien Cahalane. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The Christy O'Connor GAA column

IN the wake of Cork’s defeat to Kilkenny almost three weeks ago, Pat Mulcahy offered an honest and insightful opinion on Cork’s struggles in hurling at all levels. 

Most of Mulcahy’s views also rhymed with Paddy Kelly’s recent assessment about what was holding Cork back; an apathy engulfing the county; a dilution of Cork spirit at all levels.

Kelly retired angry and disappointed at what might have been, frustrated at what he saw for the future of Cork GAA. Kelly was always a conscientious and measured individual. He spoke out because he wanted the culture to change but he also walked away sounding beaten up and broken down by the fear that nothing much would.

Mulcahy also wants to see change but when he looked at many of the older players against Kilkenny, they reminded him of Kelly – withered from the constant grind of trying to make things better, in a county that should be doing much better.

That brings pressure in itself. Dealing with that mental stress requires a togetherness and unbreakable team spirit, something Mulcahy didn’t believe that Cork had.

“Kilkenny upped the ante and there was no comeback,” he said. “The heads (of the older players) dropped. The spirit seems to have gone out of Cork hurling, which is an awful shame. It’s harsh on the senior lads. I know a lot of them personally and they’re good lads but the spirit isn’t there for some reason.” Mulcahy qualified his comments by saying that he wasn’t specifically talking about the senior team, but more the spirit around the county. Of how the undercurrent left from a near-decade of strikes, and the debate about the new Pairc Ui Chaoimh had contributed to the general apathy and the dilution of what Mulcahy termed “the might of Cork”.

Mulcahy was spot on but his comments were still bound to be hurtful to the senior hurlers. Yet if his words were intended to provoke a response, they did a few days later when Cork turned over Waterford by eight points in Walsh Park.

A lot of the talk this spring has focused on the new faces but Cork still need the core group of established players to give more to enable those new players, and the team, to step up to the next level. Some haven’t but some certainly have.

Along with Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy, Anthony Nash has been the outstanding goalkeeper in the league to date. Damien Cahalane has had some difficult moments but he has still shown great leadership since returning from injury. That leadership has also been particularly evident from Bill Cooper, who has hit five points from play in this campaign. Daniel Kearney has also tried to drive the machine forward.

Other senior players are struggling for form and consistency but a guy Cork really needed to step up – Conor Lehane - definitely has in the last two matches. Against Kilkenny and Waterford, Lehane embraced the responsibility and provided the leadership that Cork have long required from one of the most talented players in the country.

Cork still have a long road to travel but it has been a decent campaign so far. No other county can say that they are likely to have six new starters in the championship from last season – Shane Kingston, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Mark Coleman, Colm Spillane, Luke Meade – along with more options off the bench – Michael Cahalane, Dean Brosnan, David Griffin. The real positive for Cork going forward is that they will have as many talented young players ready to try and make that step up in 2018 and 2019.

Young players though, still need time to develop. Fitzgibbon struggled in Cork’s first two games. His performances haven’t been at the same level as Kingston and Coleman but both of those players played championship last year, albeit in late cameo roles against Dublin and Wexford.

Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork in action against Graeme Mulcahy. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork in action against Graeme Mulcahy. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

When Fitzgibbon was 16, he was number 25 on the Cork U16 squad in 2013. After being sent back to the B team, the main reason he made the A panel that summer was because a player got injured and Fitzgibbon took his place.

His size went against him at the time but his massive hunger and desire to make the grade was obvious. Two years later, when Cork met Limerick in the Munster minor semi-final, Fitzgibbon gave an exhibition in the sweeper role.

The same principle of that story applies now. It may not be happening for Fitzgibbon now but it will in time. He will more than likely start in the championship against Tipp in May because class players like Fitzgibbon are the future.

The only short-term future for Cork now is Tipp on Sunday and trying to make a league quarter-final. When the teams met at the same stage last season, Cork were already in the relegation final but Tipp did a number on them anyway. Did that have a psychological impact when the teams met in the championship eight weeks later? Will Tipp want to do the same again now?

A lot will depend on the team Tipp name but Cork will still need to bring the same intensity and workrate that they brought to the Waterford match if they are to survive. With Cork unlikely to play a sweeper – as they did against Tipp last May – this is also another opportunity for Cork’s young defenders to acclimatise to the heat that Tipp attacking unit will bring in May.

Pat Mulcahy was right in saying that the spirit in Cork was broken. There is still a long way to go but there have still been small signs that the hurlers are slowly piecing those shards of hope and promise back together again. A few years ago Michael Cahalane was told he would never play again because of a heart condition. Now he is back.

In so many ways, Cahalane represents the new face and future of Cork hurling. Because that desire, hunger, will, passion and love for Cork is the only way to improve the overall spirit and make Cork great again.

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