FOR the past three years, the Cork senior hurling team’s exit from the championship has been greeted with levels of near-panic, and cris de coeur about whether or not they would ever win a game again.
In 2014, Cork had won Munster but the ten-point defeat to Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final led to Dónal Óg Cusack’s famous treatise on hurling in the county as a whole and the lack of success at all levels, illustrated with a graph comparing Cork to the rest of the province.
The following year, the limp All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Galway came the day after the footballers had suffered a similar defeat to Kildare, providing more grist to the mill, and last year saw Cork lose to Wexford in the hurling championship for the first time in almost 60 years, being eliminated from proceedings on July 9.
From such a vantage point, the future seemed bleak, but exactly a year later – July 9 of this year – Cork were Munster champions again, having seen off Tipperary, Waterford and Clare.
While Sunday’s second meeting of the year against Waterford ended up in defeat, that should not overshadow what has been a year of development and primarily rebuilding – it’s worth noting that, prior to the semi-final, Cork manager Kieran Kingston admitted that if he had been offered a Munster title and All-Ireland semi-final at the start of the year, he’d have taken it.
That’s not revisionism or being accepting of defeat, either: nobody was happy with the loss on Sunday, but, as always, some context is required.
Cork played with 14 men for 19 minutes plus injury time on Sunday against a Waterford side which had already looked stingy in terms of giving goals away. That’s not to single out the sent-off Damien Cahalane for blame or to cite the red card as the only reason for defeat, but Derek McGrath’s side were in their third consecutive semi-final and have banked a lot of experience already, so they were always likely to make the most of such a situation.
Even then, Cork led by two after frees from Patrick Horgan, who was a colossus on the day, but Waterford’s second goal, set up by Austin Gleeson and finished by the irrepressible Jamie Barron, had the dual effect of deflating Cork and inspiring the Déise.
Gleeson created the turnover after he pressed Christopher Joyce well, but on another day Joyce would have passed back to Anthony Nash, who would have alleviated danger. Without that goal, Waterford might have become edgy and Cork might have kept the scoreboard ticking over. Again, that’s not singling out Joyce, who played well overall and was showing for short puckouts even after that. It’s merely pinpointing the effect small things can have and making the point that, while Cork lost by 11 points, they were not 11 points worse in actuality.
Only one player on the Cork team is over 30 – Anthony Nash – and this year has seen six players make their championship debuts, which can only be good for 2018. In addition, some of the side which has reached the All-Ireland minor final may push on to become members of the squad, or at the very least buttress what is already looking like a formidable U21 outfit. Add in the success of this year’s U17 side and the overall outlook is far from gloomy.
Kieran Kingston’s term as manager is up now, but one would be very surprised if he didn’t wish to build on this year’s progress or if they county board didn’t want him to.
There is a board meeting tonight and the first steps towards filling the football management jobs at senior, junior, U20 and U17 will be made. It can’t really be overstated how important it is that these calls are correct, so as to allow Cork to put the best plan in place to rise from its current standing at senior level and to ensure that the production lines from underage grades are fruitful.
County board coaching officer Kevin O’Donovan has said that the fact four positions are down for decision at the same time is “a great opportunity” to implement a cohesive strategy and we are inclined to agree. Fingers cross that it is availed of.