“MAN is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), German poet and Cork hurling enthusiast.
When it comes to predicting matches big and small, I often get it wrong. Most of us do.
If we had any degree of certainty a month ago that, for example, Cork and Clare would contest the All-Ireland final then we’d be richer. A semi-final double would have returned a nice wallet-full of Paddy Power’s reserves.
If you backed this pair to be the last teams standing at the start of the championship — just after they had contested a relegation playoff — then, having bought the exclusive overseas rights, you’d be watching the final from a Caribbean infinity pool as it was beamed onto the side of a hotel. Which you own.
OK, we exaggerate, but the point is reasonably sound. Sport is like the economy: nobody knows what’s going to happen. Be wide of anybody who says they do.
Ultimately, all the tipsters and pundits and barstool experts are vying for the status of being the man who is wrong the least (it’s nearly always men who fancy their chances at foretelling the future enough to invest money in their opinion).
I won’t be ‘putting my money where my mouth is’ when it comes to the All-Ireland final. Experience has taught me that there is no greater glory in being wrong and out of pocket than in simply being wrong.
As it happens, if there is one sporting occasion for which I am least wrong, it is the All-Ireland hurling final. I’ve predicted nine of the previous 10 winners so it’s my happy punting ground. Why this should be so, I don’t really know.
I’m a lifelong enthusiast and have covered hurling games regularly for the past 10 years, but I am not an expert by any measure. In fact, the more games I see, the more I realise there is so much I don’t know.
And when it comes to Sunday, my objectivity is also compromised by the fact that Cork are playing. And I desperately want them to win.
Being from Cork, I expect us to win. And, I hope, Clare kind of expect it too.
These days, if you are dissecting an upcoming game, you go through the respective line-ups, the potential match-ups, examine the tactics that will likely be employed and then place your chips accordingly.
To say that Team A will beat Team B because they have the greater tradition is seen as punting from the philistine era; a wilful disregard for the science of sport; a throwback to the days of superstition and unchallenged prevailing wisdom — which was usually anything but wise.
In general, I’ve always tried to be as scientific as possible in the lead up to games. But I’m questioning the new faith.
Why? Well, for a start, tradition and the inherited confidence it brings are as valuable as the words from the most expert sports psychologists. And sports psychology is very sports science!
Also, an article I read recently stopped me in my tracks. More of the article in a moment.
First the background: It is July 1999 and I need a haircut. I make my way up Barrack Street’s curved incline to a place I usually go. The old guy in there is crazy but he cuts hair pretty well.
The city is buzzing because for the first time since 1992 Cork are Munster hurling champions. We quickly get around to talking the Rebels’ victory over Clare. I’m going on about Joe Deane, Seanie McGrath, Ben O’Connor; the exceptional skill levels of the forwards.
The barber is on a different slant.
“They were looking at them,” he says.
“…How do you mean?”
“All the Clare players, they were just looking at them. They were scared like.”
I can’t believe I’m hearing this nonsense. “Guys with two All-Ireland medals, with All-Stars, who’ve done everything… they were afraid of a young team who’ve won nothing?”
He does what all barbers do when they want to make a point. He stops cutting hair and stares you in the eye via the mirror.
“They were looking at the red jersey,” he says.
I’m about to tell him that they didn’t seem so afraid of the red jersey 12 months ago, but there’s no point. I just nod and let him back to his two-back-and-sides and three-minute hack-attack of the top.
I thought little more about this episode until the start of this summer when reading Jamesie O’Connor’s preview of the Munster final, Cork versus Limerick. To illustrate the point about the strut Cork hurling teams bring to big games he harked back to ’99.
Though he wasn’t playing that day, he relayed the story told to him by his teammates. During the parade Donal Óg Cusack and a few others were shouting “We’re Cork! We’re Cork!”
The message was not complicated: you’ve been the best team for the past five years, you’ve taken preparation and intensity of performance to new levels. You’ve faced down every foe. You’re at the peak of your physical powers. Almost every one of you is a household name.
But we’re Cork.
For O’Connor and his teammates to talk about this after the game (and for him to remember it all these years later) means it must have registered on some level. Clare’s legendary team were, it appears, a little bit rattled by the upstarts in red. The Banner’s success should have imbued them with a superiority complex. Instead, they faced a bunch of kids gloriously indifferent to their medals. The nature of their tradition meant it was Clare who should be wary of Cork. It was a logic which, seemingly, slightly unnerved Loughnane’s warriors.
Cork’s swagger is often their undoing. This ‘pride in the jersey’ ‘mushrooms’ stuff has a lot to do with the decline of Cork as an underage power. It begets complacency; dulls the urgency to employ best practice.
Sometimes, though, when you have a strong team, the swagger can be the difference between winning and losing.
British cycling’s top man David Brailsford talks about marginal gains. A belief that, come what may, you are going to win has to be some kind of gain.
This is one of those games where there is no clear favourite. Cork are 5/6, Clare 6/5. Every player, every match-up will be pored over in the coming days by people who know the game as well as anybody can.
No persuasive consensus for either side will emerge. It could all come down to slip of the boot, a moment of inspiration, a poor decision, one player performing above himself, someone else having a bad day.
You could make a genuinely compelling case for either side to win, or lose.
Unless one team really clicks and puts the game to bed early, there will probably come a point where the side that doesn’t blink will prevail. The finalists with the surest belief will pull through.
Like the barber on Barrack Street who has probably long since retired, I struggle to see Cork losing a big game like this to Clare.
Tradition may not mean much in concrete terms. Jimmy Barry-Murphy can’t spring himself from the bench. Christy Ring and Jack Lynch are no longer of this world. Thirty All-Ireland victories won’t buy you a single point on Sunday.
Still, all that stuff creates an atmosphere. And to be part of any team is to part of something bigger than yourself. Cork hurling has its own energy, built up through decades and decades of great games, great victories and raw passion from the stands and terraces.
In Cork, the hurling team means a lot to people. Their success is intrinsic to the communal sense of esteem. Nothing fires the spirit like the sight of red shirts against the bright green field, hurleys swinging perfect arcs.
When Cork hit Croke Park on All-Ireland final Sunday and the Rebel roar goes up and the red flags dance, all that tradition and passion becomes something tangible; something that when harnessed properly is close to being irresistible.
I don’t know what’s going to happen on Sunday, but I believe in Cork. Up the Rebels.