WITH Limerick and Kilkenny taking centre stage at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday afternoon to decide the destination of the National Hurling League title, Cork’s absence without a win in the secondary competition has extended to a quarter of a century.
However, while the last triumph over Waterford in Thurles in 1998 still comes to mind, the Cork/Wexford final five years earlier is, without doubt, one of the real landmarks in the history of the competition which now spans almost 100 years.
It’s now 30 years since that epic trilogy when Cork and Wexford travelled to Semple Stadium on three successive weekends to decide the destiny of the title.
A crowd in excess of 20,000 was present for each game, with the issue finally being sorted after two replays on a Saturday afternoon in late May when Cork made it 13 league titles on the roll of honour by virtue of a 3-11 to 1-12 win.
All three games ebbed and flowed at various stages with some dramatic late action. Ger Manley lined out at corner-forward in all three games and finished the competition with a total of 5-13.
Crucially, he contributed 2-1 in the opening episode of the final when Cork for much of the game were playing second fiddle to their opponents.
Manley’s instant memories are of an uncharismatic late missed opportunity by John O’Connor which would have given Wexford the title and sorted the issue on day one.
“In all honesty, we did not play well. O’Connor stood up to a free about 45 metres out and we felt that was probably that as the clock ticked down. But unusually he missed the chance and we lived to fight another day.”
The game finished 2-11 each, but Cork, after Manley’s goal on six minutes, were behind for most of the contest, trailing by
1-9 to 1-4 at the interval and falling seven points adrift 10 minutes into the second half.
Another Manley goal on 42 minutes kick-started a revival and helped by points by Pat Buckley and Seanie McCarthy they eventually hit the front before Larry Murphy pointed to equalise and then O’Connor spurned the match-winning chance.
It was just one of many bad wides that his team registered, as Cork were in many ways left off the hook.
On to day two, when Tipp’s Willie Barrett was again the whistler. The talk that day though was not of a late missed chance, but of a converted opportunity from play in spectacular fashion by Cork’s Jim Cashman at the end of 20 minutes of extra time.
It left the result reading Cork 0-18 Wexford 3-9.
The sides shared 10 points in a low-scoring first half — flags were still scarce on the resumption, but Cork eventually set sail for home through points from Cathal Casey, Manley, and Buckley.
A scrappy Wexford goal from Billy Byrne and a late equaliser from Martin Storey squared the game again. Casey (who registered 0-4) illuminated the first period of extra-time with a super sideline cut, as the Rebels upped their performance and scoring ratio.
Inevitably, Wexford responded with a Murphy goal. A third green flag followed after the change of ends from Eamon Cleary but Buckley, Barry Egan, and Cashman’s long-ranger tied up the game once again.
Egan, who finished the campaign with 3-43, banged in an early Cork goal which had his side level yet again at half-time.
Despite being reduced to 14 men early in the match, Cork’s energy levels were still high in the second half and they outscored Wexford by 1-6 to 0-1 coming down the home straight — substitute John Fitzgibbon finding the net with a trademark goal.
Earlier, Tomás Mulcahy had scored Cork’s second goal soon after the resumption. A 1-3 tally with no reply looked to put Wexford back in pole position; it was as good as it got though as Cork finished with a real flourish and their opponents lost their way despite once again being in a good position.
So Wexford’s wait for a first league title in 20 years went on, and it still goes on, stretching to 50 years now, twice as long as Cork’s barren spell.
Whatever happens in the Páirc on Sunday will hardly match the drama of 30 years ago in hurling’s home town.