Cork hurlers recently lost their relegation play off to Clare, the result of this game means that Cork will play in Division 1B of the National Hurling League next season.
Many people believe that this result was a ‘disaster’ for Cork hurling. People are saying that Cork need to be playing against the big teams’ week in, week out and there are many ways to justify this statement. Others will have a more positive outlook and I would be amongst that group. If Cork had a choice they would obviously elect to play in the top tier of the league but as Jimmy Barry Murphy said they must ‘take their medicine’ and move on. So let’s have a look at what’s in store for Cork.
It was an interesting winter on leeside. There were the retirements of Niall Mc Carthy and Seán Óg ó hAilpín along with the omission of John Gardiner from the panel. This would leave the team without the services of 3 experienced, All Ireland winning players. In January there were more withdrawals as Eoin Cadogan and Damien Cahalane opted to play solely with the Cork footballers and finally Donal Óg Cusack was dropped from the panel ahead of the league. This meant Cork would play this year without a vast number of experienced players. There was talks of unrest in the camp and peopled wondered would this effect the rest of the team.
Jimmy Barry Murphy received criticism from certain sections of the public and the media. People said that he lost too many experienced players. Personally, I would disagree with this criticism. There is no doubt that the players mentioned above have been good servants to Cork hurling during a certain time period but a lot of people appear to forget the continuous trouble and controversy that has followed a lot of these players. They have been involved in no less than 3 player strikes and while they bring experience and leadership I would honestly question the level of performance of a number of those players in recent years. This may prove to be a season of transition; I feel that the benefits of this campaign will be seen in a couple of years despite the fact that there was relegation from Division 1A.
If this current group of Cork players are going to progress to the next level, which is building on last year’s semi-final appearance in the championship, I think they need to find new leaders within this new crop of players. Individuals like Patrick Horgan, Paudie O’ Sullivan, Lorcán McLoughlin and William Egan will only become dominant personalities and leaders in the panel if older and experienced players are no longer there and for this reason I feel JBM was correct in his calls. For instance, a lot of people criticised the exclusion of Cusack but one must look at the bigger picture. Firstly, Cusack has been at the heart of all controversies in Cork G.A .A in recent times. Secondly, Anthony Nash showed in Cusack’s absence last year that he is a top class keeper and a capable replacement.
Thirdly, there is the fact that current second choice goalkeeper Darren McCarthy is an excellent goal keeper and anyone who follows Cork hurling knows that this man is definitely a future no.1. He has performed excellently for Cork at underage level. He has also been influential in U.C.C’s dominance of third level hurling in recent years. He has captained U.C.C to a Fitzgibbon Cup and played a leading role in a Fresher’s All Ireland and another Fitzgibbon triumph. Cork must look forward and in this instance axing Cusack was correct, in my opinion.
A lot of people questioned the losses of Gardiner, Cadogan and Seán Óg to the Cork half back line, wondering if Cork could deal with these losses. Again I feel there are many good young half backs in Cork and the reality is that these players must be given game time along numerous chances to establish themselves. I understand that a blend of youth and experience is important but in a half back line, players must learn to take responsibility and lead a team and this can only be acquired through sufficient game time and allowing players to play together.
For example, William Egan is a player with huge potential. He has the ability to lead this Cork defence and needs to be given every opportunity possible to stamp his authority on the team. Last year he was dropped for Seán Óg ó hAilpín. While the decision paid off in terms of results I would question was it a reality of ‘one step forward and two steps back’ in terms of the progression and development of the team overall. Another young player, Christopher Joyce, has demonstrated the ability to command the number 6 position for many years to come. Cadogan wore number 6 last season and when he announced his intention to focus on football, the media focused on what a loss he would be.
While it’s easy to speak as a spectator I honestly feel that Cadogan’s performances in recent years were average at best. I don’t get any pleasure from saying this, it’s just an honest opinion that I leave open to dispute. The fact that he was mixing hurling and football may have impacted on this. I fully accept that playing intercounty hurling and football is hugely demanding and his attempt to play both is highly admirable but I really believe that his performances on the pitch should be questioned. He certainly was not as irreplaceable as people made out.
This year Joyce has performed very well and in my opinion he is a more than adequate replacement in the number 6 jersey and could potentially perform to a higher level. My primary argument is whether these players would get the same opportunities if the older guard were still on the panel and I’d doubt it very much that they would. Players like Joyce and Egan are only two examples of players that need to become the leaders of the Cork team and this will only happen if they’re given the freedom to do so. So the bigger picture to me shows that despite relegation, these young Cork players will have learned a huge amount from this year’s league to assist their future development.
I truly believe that the future of Cork hurling is not as vulnerable as some are making it out to be. I accept the argument that next year’s league campaign may not be as beneficial to Cork as they will play teams such as Limerick, Offaly and Wexford as opposed to Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway. There is no doubt that games will not be as tough but they will still be games that will require winning and young players may gain and grow in confidence by winning these games. Top level sport is a results business but I think it’s fair that we judge Cork based on their league ‘performances’ this year, as opposed to ‘results’. While Cork were relegated I would be of the opinion that their performances may have deserved a better outcome.
Cork began the league with an annihilation of Tipperary. It was an outstanding performance where they hurled at pace and intensity that simply blew Tipperary away. Their second game against Waterford was a draw in incredibly difficult hurling conditions where they came back from a large deficit. They were beaten by Clare when a commanding first half lead was combined with a flat second half performance which saw the lead pegged back. Against Galway, Cork showed character again to come from behind and earn a positive draw. Finally against Kilkenny, Cork came out on the wrong side of a tight game having performed well and left themselves with plenty of optimism.
Last Sunday’s result was clearly disappointing but it is not all doom and gloom. Cork were relegated but a full reflection on the league campaign holds plenty of optimism for this particular summer, in my opinion. Cork had plenty of good performances and showed that they can compete with the best teams. To me, this shows that they still have the ability to build on last year’s championship performance and build a team that may compete for All Ireland’s in the coming years.
Players like Nash, Shane O’ Neill, Conor O’ Sullivan, Stephen White, Joyce, Egan, McLoughlin, Daniel Kearney, Conor Lehane, Luke O’ Farrell, Stephen Moylan and Paudie O’ Sullivan all performed well and these are young players that now need to lead Cork into the summer. Cork need to get Patrick Horgan back on top form in order to be successful as he is their main scoring threat. If you combine a return to form of Horgan with all of the above players, I think you have the backbone of a strong team with youth on its side capable of competing with any team in the championship. There are areas of improvement that need addressing and there are still plenty of weeks in order to try and get these areas right before the championship.
Cork simply must look to the future. They must move on from the previous era and allow players to grow into top class intercounty hurlers. The mid-noughties success is a thing of the past and the whole county needs to move on from it. This is why I still firmly believe that Jimmy Barry Murphy was correct to ‘yield the axe’ and look ahead. He did so previously in 1999 and they were some of the main players who led Cork to All Ireland success in 2004 and 2005. It must also be noted that Cork played in division 2 of the National Hurling League in 1997, gained promotion that season and went on to win an All-Ireland in 1999, and who was in charge of Cork back then? Yes, it was a certain Jimmy Barry Murphy. They say lightning doesn’t strike twice but it’s clear to me that JBM trusts what he knows and who is to say that this won’t lead to future success.
So where can this Cork team improve? There appears to be a clear weakness in Cork‘s half forward line and the ability to win primary possession. Patrick Cronin has been Cork’s main target in the air. I don’t want to sound critical again but I think his size and physique mean he should perform better in this area. People will argue that he is the only option and gets over used from puck outs and long deliveries which may be fair, but I still believe a man of his size should use his body more effectively to win more clean possession.
This has been a huge problem for many years, older sides tried to counteract this with a running game and short puckout’s but that system was subsequently defended against by other teams leading to a return to the more direct game. Cork need to derive a new system to try and counteract this problem again. Another position of concern to me is the full back position. Brian Murphy is there at the moment. He is a very good defender but he isn’t getting any younger and will need to be replaced soon.
These are two areas where I think Cork have been very unfortunate as players are there in county but not available. By this I mean that excellent hurlers have elected to play intercounty football ahead of hurling with Cork. Three players that I feel are huge losses to the hurling team are Aidan Walsh, Ciaran Sheehan and Damien Cahalane. Sheehan and Walsh are two phenomenal athletes and there ball winning ability on top of their hurling skills would be invaluable additions to the Cork half forward line. Walsh proved in 2011 what an asset he would be to the Cork hurling team. His performances for the under 21 team that year were simply outstanding and it’s a huge shame that he is yet to showcase his talents at senior level.
Cahalane is another player that I have huge admiration for. I have seen him play closely over the last few years and his progression has been remarkable. He has the size, strength and skill to be a very good intercounty hurler and lead a defence from number 3. In the club championship in recent years I haven’t seen many better defenders and I think he is a huge loss to the Cork hurlers. At the moment these players have chosen football. This is very unusual in a place like Cork, where hurling has always been the dominant game, but this change is impacting negatively on hurling in Cork at this moment in time and it is depriving the team of 3 players capable of taking Cork to the next level. Their losses are huge.
So what is next for Cork hurlers and are they in such a bad place? I don’t believe that they are. I think it’s too cynical to say that relegation is a reflection of poor league performances and that the future for Cork is bleak. A lot of Cork players have matured this year and acquired experience which should stand to them come summer time. Limerick and Clare were the two teams that played in Division 1B last year. Limerick performed well in championship last year forcing Kilkenny and Tipperary, who many consider to be the two best teams, to perform to their very best in order to beat them.
One only has to look at Clare’s performances this year to see their progression. To me this shows that it’s not all ‘doom and gloom’ in Division 1B and Cork people don’t need to be so negative. When I ask what is next for Cork, the answer is this year’s championship. What I am really trying to say is judge Cork on their championship performances this year. The real hurling season is yet to start, while league relegation isn’t ideal, intercounty teams are judged on championship performances so let’s see how Cork will fair this year.