As time ticks on with no indication as to when inter-county or club GAA action will resume, the window for what can be fitted reduces, bit by bit.
Last year, the provincial and All-Ireland club championships had to go by the wayside. Given that these are bonus competitions for sides that have already won something, their absence was a bit easier to take but, at the same time, they serve an important purpose and the sponsors, AIB, have been good supporters to the GAA for more than three decades, with the branding accompanied by some excellent media productions.
Unfortunately, the possibility of these events being missed out in 2021 is increasing and the availability of enough dates for the Allianz hurling and football leagues is also something that is in danger.
Last week, Cork manager Kieran Kingston outlined the importance of the league in terms of developing a squad – especially given that the Cork panel has experienced such churn since 2020 – and hoped that there could still be space for it. Of course, winning the competition would also remove one of the many millstones around the neck of Leeside hurling.
Given that there are so many other droughts to worry about, Cork’s 23-year wait for a hurling league title often goes overlooked - it could become 24 without a ball being pucked.
Since beating Waterford to claim the 1998 title, there have been final appearances in 2002, 2010, 2012 and 2015, with Kilkenny (twice), Galway and Waterford emerging victorious as Cork fell short. It’s something that Kingston mentioned at the beginning of the 2020 league campaign.
“Every time a Cork senior hurling team takes to the field now it’s, ‘Have we something to follow now or are we under pressure again?’” he said.
“You can understand that when you haven’t had a national league title in 22 years and an All-Ireland in 15. People are starved of success. While the league might be perceived as the secondary competition, it’s important for us.”
Much is made, of course, of how Cork’s 1999 All-Ireland title was backboned by members of the successful U21 sides of 1997 and 1998, but the value of bettering Waterford in that 1998 league decider is often overlooked.
Perhaps the fact that Clare eliminated Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s team from the championship a few weeks later clouded the league victory somewhat, but in the old one-and-done format, it was easy to come up against a team better on the day. As well, Clare were the team to beat back then and were eager to win back-to-back All-Irelands – something which may well have happened but for Jimmy Cooney’s faulty watch in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final against Offaly.
That was for later in an eventful summer, but the Banner would have their part to play too in Cork’s league victory – or, rather, their part not to play. The All-Ireland champions had finished second in Division 1A, four points behind a Limerick side who had won all of their games, while Cork had edged out Waterford to top Division 1B so the semi-final paired them together on May 3 in Semple Stadium.
Joe Deane scored nine points with Alan Browne and Seánie McGrath getting the goals. Of the 16 players who saw game-time that day, 12 would play some part in September of the following year as the nine-year wait for the Liam MacCarthy Cup was ended. Things were definitely moving in the right direction.
Soon enough, though, the whispers emerged about the lack of importance Clare had placed on the match. “They trained on the evening before the match,” soon morphed into, “They trained on the morning of the match,” and when they won by 0-21 to 0-13 in the Munster semi-final in Thurles, the legend grew further legs.
Classic Ger Loughnane mind-games, we were told, but Anthony Daly’s excellent autobiography relates a different tale: the Clare panel hiring a minibus for the day after the league game, the May bank holiday Monday, and going on a West Clare pub-crawl with the proviso being that nobody would drink until the championship clash with Cork or Limerick.
“We felt aggrieved. We had a point to prove. And that mentality set the tone for our summer.”
Clare now respected Cork enough to have put in an extra effort to beat them. Cork’s star was clearly rising among those in the know and that would be proved in the league final against Waterford on May 17.
The final score was 2-14 to 0-13 and seven points probably flattered Cork, but then they had done much to earn their own luck before a crowd of 32,890. Seánie O’Farrell had scored a great individual goal just before half-time to give the Rebels a 1-6 to 0-7 half-time lead and while McGrath extended that advantage on the resumption, Anthony Kirwan, Dave Bennett and Paul Flynn were to the fore as Waterford came roaring back into it.
Flynn put them ahead in the 44th minute (league games were still 60-minute affairs in those days) but Fergal McCormack levelled as Waterford squandered chances to solidify their position, and Cork then gunned for the tape.
Alan Browne snaffled a second goal before a flurry of points made them comfortable. Had Waterford won, would Cork have been able to beat Limerick in Limerick in the opening round of the championship a fortnight later?
Clare might have been primed and waiting in the next game, but there was no shame in being a bit behind them on the developmental curve. A marker had been laid down and the graph was pointing upwards. The following year, it would accelerate.