Following relegation from the top tier of the National Hurling League I wrote a long, in-depth article looking ahead to what I felt was in store for the future of this Cork hurling team.
Opinions were very negative across a lot of Cork and all over the country when it came to this Cork team. Many people felt that relegation was a disaster for such a young team and many said that Cork would struggle in this season’s championship.
In that article I defended the Cork players and Cork management, something that I would have been slow to do over the last five years or so, but I felt this group were a lot different. They have proved a lot of doubters wrong. They have gone about things in the right way and they are seeing the benefits of a fresh regime. Now this Cork team are the group to have beaten Kilkenny in the championship and they find themselves in an All-Ireland semi-final full of confidence.
Despite being relegated from Division 1A of the league, Cork played well throughout the league and this young team gained invaluable experience and learned an awful lot. A new team with new leaders was established and having six very tough and very competitive games was going to be excellent preparation for the championship. This also backs up the argument in favour of the excellent structure that I think is in place in the hurling league but that is something that I will focus on elsewhere. Cork hurlers began to move on from a troubled past and their future now looks an awful lot brighter.
Jimmy Barry-Murphy put his head on the block and got rid of troublesome figures. Donal Óg Cusack, John Gardiner, Seán Óg ó hAilpín, Eoin Cadogan and Niall McCarthy were more or less released from the Cork hurling panel. It was criticised from a lot of corners but as I said at the time I thought it was 100% correct and the decision has been fully justified. The goalkeeping situation is very good with Anthony Nash and Darren McCarthy. Cusack was not needed as a player, he has been at the centre of all previous controversies and therefore his omission was correct.
The other players who were relieved of their places on the panel were also prominent in previous disputes and Cork were never going to move on until these players were no longer around. Regardless of their talent, the baggage that accompanied them was too heavy in my opinion and I would also say that their levels of performance in recent seasons had been below par. The younger players needed to grow into leaders and now this is occurring. I don’t think this would have happened if it wasn’t for the winter clear-out. JBM has been proved correct and I must say I am delighted.
This new group of players seem to have a new lease of life. It looks like their own team. They are all in it together, playing for each other and the management and I don’t think the same thing could be said for Cork teams of recent years. They seem to be as strong as they have been since 2006 when they came very close to winning three All-Ireland’s in a row. Since then there has been little but trouble. 2007 and 2008 were decent seasons but we all know now that things were not good behind the scenes and from 2009 onwards, Cork have been poor. There were strong under-21 teams in 2010 and 2011, 2012 saw a mini revival and now 2013 looks to be the turning point.
In all honesty I am not surprised. There is potential in this Cork side. They have very good goalkeeping options. In defence Conor O’Sullivan, Christopher Joyce and William Egan are finally becoming established high quality players. Daniel Kearney has been a revelation at midfield. Up front Seamus Harnedy has been the find of the championship and the return of Jamie Coughlan from injury has boosted their pace and firepower. Patrick Horgan is becoming more experienced he is now racking up tallies similar to the likes of Joe Deane and Ben O’Connor in years gone by.
Cork haven’t been winning at underage but there are decent players coming through which is more important. It would be great to match underage talent with winning silverware, take Clare for example. Look at another example though in Galway. They win underage titles, but a lot of the players fail to make any impact at senior level. The Cork under-21 teams of 2010 and 2011 were very unlucky not to win silverware but these players have moved onto senior, learned their trade and they now find themselves in a great position for the 2013 season.
I said to judge Cork on their championship performances and so far they have done very well. A great win over Clare was followed by an unfortunate loss to Limerick in the Munster final. They faced Kilkenny in a quarter-final, I predicted a Cork win and they duly delivered. I said prior to the game that Cork would win unless Kilkenny produced something special and Cork were there to capitalise on another tired Kilkenny performance. Whoever beat Kilkenny was going to blow the championship wide open and now all four teams remaining in the championship will fancy their chances of lifting the Liam McCarthy Cup in September.
In hindsight Cork are still in the same position as they found themselves in last season, an All-Ireland semi-final, but a look at the bigger picture paints a much brighter picture. They have played much better hurling in this year’s championship. They have beaten much stronger opposition. They have a lot of momentum behind them. They look like a fresher team and most importantly there is a feel good factor back in Cork hurling again. The title is wide open and they have as good a chance as Dublin, Limerick or Clare of winning the All-Ireland. Not just because I am a Cork man but I would love to see Cork win an All-Ireland this year. It would send a great message to the players that were released at the start of the season.