Cork need to get confidence in motion to stay in championship

Clash with Waterford on May 15 is last roll of the dice for Rebels
Cork need to get confidence in motion to stay in championship

Cork’s Robbie Flynn with Shane O'Donnell and Peter Duggan of Clare. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

WEDNESDAY is the 19th anniversary of Manchester United being confirmed as the Premier League champions for 2002-03.

As happened on a few occasions during Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure, the Red Devils claimed the title due to a rival dropping points – on this occasion, it was Leeds United’s 3-2 win over Arsenal at Highbury that ended the Gunners’ reign as champions.

Three days later, Arsenal were involved in another home game, beating Southampton 6-1 in an FA Cup final dress-rehearsal. Robert Pirès and Jermaine Pennant both scored hat-tricks, but the game is better remembered for being the first of the 49-game unbeaten run, an English league record. It wasn’t Arsenal’s only streak without defeat during that campaign, though.

Having finished the 2001-02 double-winning season with 21 league games unbeaten, they started 2002-03 with seven wins and two draws before a last-minute goal by a 16-year-old Wayne Rooney gave Everton victory at Goodison Park.

That was a Saturday and on the following Tuesday, Arsenal lost 2-1 at home to Auxerre in the Champions League. The Saturday after that, Blackburn Rovers came to Highbury and won; the next Wednesday saw them fall to a 2-1 defeat away to Borussia Dortmund.

From being unbeatable, all of a sudden they had forgotten how to win – and when victory did return, away to Fulham, it was thanks to an own goal.

Confidence, or the lack of it, is a funny thing – it is the great intangible across all sports, the power that overrides talent and ability. It’s what causes Adam Scott to bogey the last four holes of the 2012 Open and hand the Claret Jug to Ernie Els after playing near-flawless golf up to then. It’s what took Jimmy White to six World Championship finals but also what stopped him taking the final step. And it’s arguable that it’s a factor in Ireland making it to Rugby World Cup quarter-finals but no further.

Unfortunately, it’s not in great supply when it comes to Cork hurling. Last year, after defeat to Limerick in the Munster SHC, they met Clare in the All-Ireland qualifiers and just about hung on to win, building on that by seeing off Dublin and then Kilkenny to reach a first final in eight years.

A second loss to a rampant Limerick was not unacceptable, but the 16-point margin of defeat raised questions. 

When Kieran Kingston’s side began the current year’s Allianz Hurling League campaign with wins against Clare, Offaly, Limerick and Galway, some of those questions looked to be answered as the team played with a verve and confidence.

Though Wexford won the final regular game, Cork bounced back in the semi-final against Kilkenny, overcoming a slow start with a surging finish to stay on course for a first title in 24 years.

Of course, you know the rest of the story – four goals were conceded in the final against Waterford, reigniting the doubts about the team’s capability to win silverware; a rematch with Limerick showed that the Shannonsiders are still superior; and then, last Sunday, Clare seized the upper hand as Cork struggled. It means that Walsh Park is Cork’s last-chance saloon on Sunday week, against a Waterford side that will be smelling blood, especially after the league final.

The Cork players didn’t become bad overnight, but it was clear in the first half on Sunday that there was some belief lacking. It is to their credit that they kept going and finished within a score of Clare, but a proper fightback never looked to be truly viable.

What can be done? The easy thing for an outside observer is to say to focus on the basics and the grunt work – the Paul O’Connell motto of, ‘Let’s be the best at the things that require no skill,’ but those things can happen without victory being guaranteed, especially against a team as strong as Waterford.

When confidence is low, there is a tendency to be afraid to make mistakes but such rigidity can itself be a cause for more under-performance. Playing freely is no guarantee that things will turn but, with nothing to lose now, it’s as well to loosen the shackles.

A two-week gap between games wasn’t a magical elixir between Waterford and Limerick or Limerick and Clare, but it is again what the team and management have to work with. Let’s hope that it can be used to rediscover the necessary confidence.

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