Roy Curtis: Cork may have found the hero to help them grow strong
Cork’s spot atop hurling’s Everest an old memory, but Pat Ryan is reviving hopes
For generations of Cork hurling men, the seat of national power seemed less an ambition than a sovereign right, a Rebel privilege assigned from the heavens.
When Seán Óg Ó hAilpín raised Liam McCarthy to the skies above Croke Park in September 2005, that bedrock of certainty never seemed so substantial or unbreakable.
A 30th All-Ireland, more, at that stage, than any other county, added yet another layer to the dense blood-and-bandages mystique.
Imbued with household names and formidable back-to-back Championship winners – Ó hAilpín, Donal Óg Cusack, Brian Corcoran, Joe Deane, Diarmuid O’Sullivan, the O’Connor twins – Cork’s was an empire that seemed eternal.
Today, the Rebels enter summer’s theatre, seeking to plant seeds which might at last yield a harvest to end hurling’s most unlikely famine.
Some 6,440 days have passed since Ó hAilpín’s rousing as Gaeilge victory oration, 18 years of stagnation and decay and false hope, and one question screams louder than any other.
Can Cork, who long ago surrendered their old stomping ground at the top of the hurling pyramid, brush the past aside rather than, again, bow before it?
First-season manager Pat Ryan makes no attempt to dodge the brutal truth that confronts any individual who steps into a job accompanied by the ancient game’s most blinding spotlight.
“Is not winning the All-Ireland a failure in Cork? It is, like, yeah,” Ryan announced ahead of February’s League campaign.
“That’s not being cocky, that’s just the way it is. Would I look on it as a failure myself? I probably wouldn’t, because you’d know that you’d given it everything.
“But look, in the grand scheme of things, if you don’t win the All-Ireland, it’s a failure.”
It is not so long since Dublin football was the nightingale without a song.
By the time the summer of 2011 arrived, the Sky Blues had endured 16 years since they last held the title deeds to Sam Maguire. Then, Stephen Cluxton, kicked a free and kick-started a golden age.
Dublin would win eight of the next ten All-Irelands.
In Cork, there is a conviction they have the right man to help them grow strong at broken places.
Ryan ended a 20-year wait at U-20/-21 level when guiding the Rebels to back-to-back All-Irelands.
He has overcome even greater obstacles in life, dealing with a 2018 diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukaemia.
Chemotherapy and some dark days when doctors searched for a medication to which his body could adapt – one early dosage was causing his liver to fail, another resulted in fluid around his heart and lung – are mercifully in the past.
His health is good, the illness no longer a burden.
Cork, meanwhile, have endured too long as the sick man of hurling.
They could only mainline on sentiment as first Brian Cody’s remorseless Kilkenny drove them off the roll-of-honour summit (the Cats advanced to 36 titles as Cork remained stuck on 30) and then Limerick took the sport in a ferocious chokehold.
Two years ago, when the Rebels made it to the All-Ireland final for the only time in the last ten summers, it was to endure a horrendous punishment beating at the hands of John Kiely’s powerhouse champions.
Cork conceded 3-32, the most ever leaked on hurling’s biggest day, and were physically bullied by their leviathan opponents.
Ryan has emphasised the need to get more physical, to add a heavyweight intensity to the county’s traditional gold-standard qualities of Velcro touch, skilled stickwork and speed.
Their League campaign was highly encouraging until a tame semi-final capitulation to Kilkenny.
A thrilling come-from-behind, opening-day victory over Limerick, the timeless Patrick Horgan leading the way with ten points, offered early evidence Ryan might fill the 18-year vacuum.
Conor Lehane sparkled in an impressive Salthill ambush of Galway, Declan Dalton also striking a rich vein of form.
There was a narrow victory over Wexford and a gritty performance against Clare in Ennis – Lehane and Conor Cahalane salvaging a draw with injury-time scores – that offered further confirmation of a growing mental steel.
The unbeaten run ended with that underwhelming semi-final defeat to Kilkenny, a red card for Eoin Downey ruling him out of their Munster Championship opener against Waterford today, and again leaving Ryan scrambling for a solution to the problematic Number 3 conundrum.
Waterford challenged the thesis of Limerick’s invincibility last week.
Only some inexplicably poor finishing denied Davy Fitzgerald an electrifying start to his second Championship coming with the county he guided to the 2008 All-Ireland final.
But the Déise’s competitiveness – even if the loss of the perennially unlucky Tadhg de Burca to another season-ending injury took much of the gloss from their afternoon – filled the cup of hope for rivals seeking ways to crack Limerick’s suffocating monopoly on summer glory.
Meanwhile, history was repeating itself, with one of the game’s most colourful pundit’s damning verdict on Ryan’s men.
In 1990, as defending All-Ireland champs Tipperary, prepared to face Cork, Tipp boss Babs Keating – a racing fan – delivered the famous line: “You can’t win a derby with a donkey.”
Although the quote was taken out of context – interviewer Ger Canning confirmed Keating was not denigrating the Rebels – Cork took huge exception.
When the Rebels defeated Tipp, the Examiner hit back at Keating’s apparent slight with a “Not bad for donkeys.”
Cork went on to win the All-Ireland and Keating’s line was lampooned in the front window of Larry Tompkins’ old pub across the road from Kent Station.
This week, Keating again had his old rival in his crosshairs, the hard-hitting headline over his newspaper column leaving nothing to the imagination.
“This,” it screamed, “is the worst Cork team I’ve ever seen with The Rebels’ All-Ireland drought looking unlikely to end anytime soon.”
Ryan will hope Cork’s response is as emphatic as it was 33 years ago.
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