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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Cork need more than pride and skill to rule again

Cork's chances of a 31st title were extinguished by Clare

VICTORY for Clare is a victory for things done right.

Their triumph is the result of toil, of tending diligently to the grass roots.

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In Cork, the fact that they have the biggest field and are on fertile soil has been seen as enough for them to yield a rich harvest. For most of history it has been.

As sport becomes more of an exact science, though, it is more and more difficult to sustain yourself with mushrooms that spring overnight.

For that is what this Cork team is: a team from nowhere, in the tradition of so many other All-Ireland-winning sides from the deep south. Today’s crop haven’t won an All-Ireland. They may or may not do so in the future. Irrespective, they have demonstrated so many admirable qualities this summer: skill, pace, tenacity.

The two qualities I’ll remember most, as a fan, are their die-hard attitude and the way they play the game in the true spirit. By that, I don’t mean they are above cynical fouling: in the closing stages against Dublin they showed themselves to be just as capable as any side — in football or hurling — of hauling down advancing forwards while bearing no intent at all to play the ball.

By the right spirit, I mean their willingness to stand toe-to-toe with any side.

Before the Munster final, Jimmy Barry-Murphy was asked by a TV reporter was there any late changes. No, he said, Cork would be playing as selected, as per the match programme.

“England will be playing four-four-***ing two,” said this paper’s Gaelic football columnist.

I have to admit that I laughed at the time. There is a touch of Mike Bassett about JBM. He knows what he likes and he won’t let popular taste get in the way; how many other men would have the balls to sport serial-killer sideburns week-in-week-out despite the fact that they know they are about to be broadcast to an audience of millions?

When it comes to hurling, well, he likes hurlers. He’ll pick the most skillful and pacy and smart players he can find and put them out there to do what they will. He’ll go mano-a-mano with any opposition, backing his men to prevail in a shootout.

He believes in his players, believes in the history of Cork hurling. The Rebels will pure hurl with all comers and expect to win. If they lose, well, Hell, they must just have met a better side on the day. As the great man said afterwards, “We’ll take our defeat like men and we’ll move on”.

Dignified to the end, meeting triumph and disaster as one: What a man is JBM. He’s the leader of the sprawling and sometimes fractious Cork family. All over the world, we look up to him. He must know this, but wears it as lightly as can be. If anybody is to lead the Rebels to Liam MacCarthy number 31 and beyond, it is he.

But, now that the emotion has subsided a bit from Saturday’s breathless battle, number 31 feels quite far away.

Clare are champions. You’d be demanding ID from most of their players before you served them an alcopop. They’re not going to go away.

Limerick were certainly not outplayed by Clare in the same way that Cork were for the majority of the two finals.

Tipperary and Galway endured disappointing years but they have serious reserves of talent. One from that pair will get it together and be a force in 2014. Dublin will be thereabouts. Kilkenny aren’t done, just on a short break.

Cork's Stephen White and teammates dejected after losing to Clare
Cork’s Stephen White and teammates dejected after losing to Clare

The stars aligned somewhat for Cork this year. They played magnificently against Kilkenny and would have won well regardless of Shefflin’s sending off. It’s not possible to make the same assertion of their semi-final victory. Ryan O’Dwyer’s red card was quite probably the decisive factor.

Against Clare, Cork were second best for at least 110 of the 140 minutes. Apart from the third quarter of the replay and the final quarter of the drawn game, they were hanging on for their lives.

That they weren’t out of sight was down to a mixture of Clare’s hesitancy when the tape beckoned and Cork’s own resilience. There were so many moments when all seemed lost — eight points down on Sunday, five down the first day with 15 minutes left — when the natural thing to do was accept your fate and see out the game, hoping it’s not going to get any worse.

Instead the Rebels raged against defeat to the point that they all but hauled the Banner down the Hogan steps just as they were about to get their hands on the goodies. It was dogged stuff; quite humbling if you are from Cork. These young guys threw everything of themselves into upholding the glory of the red jersey.

The brutal truth is that it took that superhuman effort to keep things respectable. Okay, they could have nicked it on day one, even if that would have been larceny. They were still in the hunt down the straight on Saturday night but ultimately they were second best to a side with a winning pedigree.

Clare have won three of the past five U21 championships. They have tended the roots while Cork have not won an U21 championship this century.

Clare’s controversial but acutely clever former goalkeeper is the manager. Cork’s equivalent? Well, when asked if he’d like the job sometime while fielding questions in a Dublin pub’s preview on the eve of the first final, he quipped: “The County Board would give the job to Assad before they’d give it me.” Funny because it’s true.

Donal Óg Cusack will probably manage other counties to mighty performances, following in the example of fine Cork hurling men who have fallen foul of their County Board. Men such as John Allen, Donal O’Grady and Justin McCarthy.

Blaming the County Board for every unsatisfactory circumstance is an old one but, in Cork, it’s hard to deny that they have been the common denominator in a lot of strife.

Cork is the biggest field with the richest soil; they should be in the shake-up every year, at every level. When they are not, you have to wonder whether all the brains in the county are inside the tent. You have to wonder whether their underage set-up is as bedded in and sophisticated as it is in Clare, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway, Limerick, Dublin and Waterford.

A quick look at results will indicate that it is not.

Cork will always produce great hurlers and as long as they have great men like Jimmy Barry-Murphy to lead them, they will fight the good fight. They may even pick off the odd All-Ireland title, as they so nearly did this time.

Over time, though, unless the Rebels roots are given the same care as those in the neighbouring fields, the likeliest outcome is drought.

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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