Cork v Waterford: Hurlers paying the price for an era of tactical stagnation

'We can continue to scapegoat players or we could begin to query the standard of coaching and tactical acumen that exists...'
Cork v Waterford: Hurlers paying the price for an era of tactical stagnation

Cork's Patrick Collins is tackled by Waterford's Michael Kiely in the league final. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

THERE'S an iconic scene from The Wire where Baltimore detective Bunk confronts drug-dealing folk-hero Omar about a murder and enters into an impassioned soliloquy, lamenting the city’s fall into crime. 

“As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community... and now all we got is bodies. It makes me sick how far we done fell."

The mood in Thurles after the Clare loss was a similar mélange of anger and sorrow. 

Anger stemming from yet another capitulation. Yet another embarrassment. Sorrow stemming from the memory of what Cork hurling once stood for. 

Of what we once were. And 'how far we done fell'.

That fall, and the multitude of reasons that caused it, have been well-documented at this stage. 

But Clare too, have had to deal with their fair share of backstage tumult in recent years. 

Brian Lohan’s reign as manager has thus far been pocked with the sort of problems that were once synonymous with Cork’s own travails – a fractious relationship with a dictatorial county secretary, ongoing issues regarding team expenses, a dearth of adequate training facilities and an alarming decline in underage success to name but a few. 

All the while, Lohan’s Clare team have remained competitive, refusing to allow their performance levels to become hostage to circumstance. 

No excuses. Just getting on with it. As the fella says, ‘tis the same water that softens the spud that hardens the egg'.

With just over 50 minutes gone on the clock, Clare were reduced to 14 men.  Just prior to that, Connolly’s goal and a point from Robbie O’Flynn had reduced the deficit to four points and all of a sudden, the trajectory of the game somehow appeared to be tilted in Cork’s favour. 

Twenty minutes to win the game, 20 minutes to salvage the season. 

Clare's Ian Galvin was red-carded by referee Paud O Dwyer but Cork couldn't make the most of that advantage. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Clare's Ian Galvin was red-carded by referee Paud O Dwyer but Cork couldn't make the most of that advantage. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

What transpired instead epitomised every negative connotation that, rightly or wrongly, has been thrown at this group of players over the past few days and weeks. Or years. 

Moments later, Sean O’Donoghue burst out from defence with the ball and arrowed a low pass into the forward division, only for the Clare defence to bely their numerical disadvantage and regain possession. 

The ball eventually found its way to David Fitzgerald, who made full use of the space afforded him, to increase Clare’s lead. 

The next passage of play saw David Ryan do likewise and when Darragh Fitzgibbon was hounded out of possession soon after, the gap was back to eight. At that juncture, Lohan’s boys must have known that any thought of a battle was fanciful. 

The Cork supporters knew it too.

Last summer, after Cork’s epic victory over the same opposition on that weltering day above in the Gaelic Grounds, I wrote of how this young team exuded an air of defiance that had been absent for far too long. A different animal to that which went before. 

When Kilkenny were denied the most Kilkenny-like of victories in the subsequent All-Ireland semi-final, it really did seem that a corner had finally been turned. 

That ebullience even managed to survive the Limerick shellacking, written off in many quarters as nothing more than an occupational hazard, one that could have befallen anybody unfortunate enough to wander blindly into the path of a killing machine. 

The buoyant optimism of 10 months ago certainly seems foolish now, given how quickly the team has regressed to the mean. 

You’d think we’d have learned our lesson by now, considering the undulating fortunes of the Cork hurlers over the past decade and the tendency for relative highs to be followed almost immediately by absolute lows. 

Fool me once...

Whether 2021 should be perceived as an outlier or not is debatable. 

While it’s fair to say that last year’s auspicious route to the decider, via Dublin and Kilkenny as opposed to Tipp, Waterford or Galway, rendered Cork’s true worth in a more favourable light, it is also the case that these players are not as bad as recent showings would suggest. 

They simply can’t be. The extent of Cork’s plight over the past month (how has it only been a month?) and the sheer scale of the decline suggests that the problems that exist at present are far graver than an inability to claim primary ball or a proclivity for loose marking. 

Patrick Horgan of Cork is tackled by Conor Cleary of Clare. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Patrick Horgan of Cork is tackled by Conor Cleary of Clare. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

While these glaring flaws, as ever, will draw the bulk of the criticism, the more pertinent issues are systemic. 

We can continue to scapegoat players for another decade if we wish, or we could begin to query the standard of coaching and tactical acumen that exists within a county that remains steadfastly and hubristically insular.

The crux of the matter is that Cork have produced one great team in more than 30 years, a team whose success was built on quality coaching and an innovative understanding of how the game could be played on their terms. 

Long or short, fast or slow: the terms we wish to play on now are anyone’s guess. 

In the face of such vociferous criticism regarding their style of play against Limerick and Waterford, the quandary that abounded in the build-up to the Clare game was whether the management team would stick or twist. 

In the end, they chose the latter, and in doing so, Cork twisted themselves into knots from which they couldn’t be untangled. 

If Cork are to extradite themselves from this seemingly endless cycle of ups and downs, a coherent structure and identity must be deemed the first port of call. 

How we get to that point is a question that needs addressing.

Either way, nobody can be in any doubt that it’s a long, long way from Clare to there.

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