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'It ended with Cork with a bit of drama and I never wanted to do things that way'

Former All-Star and Cork senior hurling captain Wayne Sherlock reflects on his years in the red.

WAYNE SHERLOCK IS envious.

He hasn’t worn a Cork jersey in over a decade but weeks like this are when the cravings for another taste of inter-county hurling are difficult to suppress.

Wayne Sherlock 4/4/1999 Wayne Sherlock in 1999. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

If he could offer one piece of advice to the hurlers of Cork and Waterford, who’ll vie for an All-Ireland final place tomorrow at Croke Park, it would be to savour every second. Soak it all in, the build-up and aftermath included. Occasions like this can pass in the blink of an eye if you let them. Before you know it they’ll be a thing of the past. And fairytale endings are reserved for the fortunate few. Take it from someone who’s been there before.

“Every time a big game like this comes around I get the urge,” Sherlock says. “I want to be on the pitch. For the two weeks before a match, I absolutely loved the build-up. Everyone is together, you’re with your buddies and you’re all pulling in the same direction to achieve the same goal. The buzz around the place was incredible as well, and it’s back now.

“Players probably try and avoid that but you have to appreciate it as well. It’s only since I retired that I really noticed how much it means to the people. You don’t want to get involved in that side of things when you’re playing — you’re in your own bubble where you’re just focused on training and winning — but I’ve really noticed it since I packed up. Cork people love hurling. If I could change one thing I’d have taken more notice of things like that.”

During the eight years Sherlock spent on his county’s senior panel, the Cork hurlers seemed inextricably linked to their peers to the east. Sherlock made his championship debut against Waterford. His first championship game as Cork captain was against Waterford. They were the only team he lost to in six Munster final appearances. They were the team he faced more often than any other.

The rivalry between the two counties blossomed at the turn of the millennium and produced some of the most captivating contests in recent memory. Sherlock is content with his haul of three All-Irelands and five Munster titles at senior level, but he knows there could have been even more if the Deise hadn’t been an obstacle.

Wayne Sherlock and John Mullane 29/6/2003 Sherlock tangles with Waterford's John Mullane during the 2003 Munster final. Source: INPHO

“Traditionally over the years they would have gotten a lot of hammerings from Cork, back before our time obviously,” he says. “But by that stage they were an absolutely superb hurling team — who I still think should have won an All-Ireland — and every time they played us they brought their A-game because beating Cork meant that much to them.

“They hated us in hurling terms and we knew that, so we knew we had to bring our A-game as well. They were so good that we had to be at our best to beat them. They were always brilliant against us. When you have a mixture of two teams like that it’s always going to make for a ferocious game.”

Sherlock was introduced to the Cork senior panel in 1999 as a graduate of the U21 side that accomplished back-to-back All-Irelands under Bertie Óg Murphy the previous year. It had been a barren decade for Cork by their standards, but those U21 successes — coupled with minor titles in ’95 and ’98 — provided cause for optimism within the Rebel County.

“I’ll never forget when we won our first U21 All-Ireland in ’97, Bertie Óg spoke to us afterwards. He said: ‘The players in this dressing room will go on to win senior All-Irelands. The last time Cork won an U21 All-Ireland (1988), they won a senior two years later.’

“That kind of sparked something. It really registered with the group and gave us a bit of a buzz. Hearing something like that from him meant a lot because he got that group together and he never got the praise he deserved. It was a big catalyst for what came afterwards.”

Cork Under 21 1997 The Cork U21 that won the All-Ireland in 1997. Source: © Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Nevertheless, Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s senior side didn’t appear to be in rude health going into the summer of 1999 as their Munster Championship opener against Waterford approached.

“We played Tipp in a challenge a few weeks before it and they beat us by about 25 points. We were annihilated,” Sherlock recalls. “We thought we were in big trouble. JBM was questioning was he the right man to take us forward and you couldn’t have blamed him after that.”

In 1998, Barry-Murphy’s third season in charge, Cork showed signs of progress by winning the National League and beating Limerick in a Munster quarter-final. Since losing to Kilkenny in the ’92 All-Ireland decider, the Rebels’ only championship victory had come at the expense of Kerry in ’95. In spite of his legendary status on Leeside, ’99 was likely to represent JBM’s last throw of the dice.

After a few home truths were exchanged in a meeting of players following their aforementioned hammering against Tipperary, Barry-Murphy put his faith in youth for the meeting with a Waterford side who were being guided by his fellow Corkman and St Finbarr’s clubmate Gerald McCarthy. Five championship debutants were selected to start. Right half-back Wayne Sherlock was one of them.

“JBM gave an incredibly passionate speech in the dressing room which really got us going,” Sherlock says. “The fact that there was a Corkman training Waterford at the time was a big spark for us too. You don’t want a Corkman training a team to beat you.

Jimmy Barry Murphy celebrates 13/6/1999. Jimmy Barry-Murphy celebrates after Cork's win against Waterford in 1999. Source: ©INPHOTom Honan

“The intensity of the game, I just couldn’t get over the speed of it. Phenomenal. I’ve never been as nervous as I was before that game. When it was over I actually really struggled with severe tiredness for about two weeks. The whole occasion just drained me. I told myself at the time that I’d never allow that to happen again. It took way too much out of me.

“I was marking Ken McGrath and he got two points off me, but I did okay overall. I settled down after the first few balls and did my bit. My aim was always just to make a contribution to a winning team, and thankfully that’s what happened that day. We were thrilled afterwards obviously but I was delighted for JBM.

“He’d had a tough few years and there was fierce pressure on him, even though he was such a legend in Cork — and still is. I was always blown away by his passion for Cork. Cork was in his blood. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who loves Cork as much as JBM. He was Cork through and through, and you couldn’t help but feed off it. You’d tap into his energy and you’d be buzzing from it. His reaction after the game is what stands out to me from that day more than anything else. He deserved that win.”

Against Waterford in Thurles on the second weekend of June in 1999, Wayne Sherlock delivered the first of many exceptional displays for Cork. A player of substance over style — although he was capable of producing both — Sherlock soon became recognised as one of hurling’s most reliable defenders. He’d eventually revert back to the corner, but the Blackrock man first made his name at inter-county level in a half-back line that also included Brian Corcoran and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín.

More often than not, reporters tasked with player ratings placed an 8 or 9 beside his name. In the pubs around Croke Park and Semple Stadium, and during their southbound journeys from Dublin and Thurles, Cork supporters would eventually begin to omit Sherlock from their post-match discussions. That he played well was a given. No further analysis was required. Exceptions were rare.

Jimmy Barry Murphy and Wayne Sherlock celebrate 12/9/1999 Barry-Murphy and Sherlock celebrate after Cork's 1999 All-Ireland triumph. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

The lack of fanfare suited him too. His current Twitter profile photo, which contains a quote attributed to former New Zealand rugby captain Richie McCaw, epitomises his outlook:

No person is bigger than the team. Your job is just to enhance the legacy. It’s not about being a hero. It’s about serving the team.

Sherlock quickly developed a reputation as one of the best man-markers in the game. He had the skills to express himself when in possession, but he savoured the prospect of nullifying the threat posed by the opposition’s most dangerous attackers.

“I loved that,” he says enthusiastically. “It was something I thrived on. People might have thought I was just a stopper, and I was a stopper, but I wanted to play from the front. I wasn’t a fella for pulling jerseys or hitting a fella first. I wanted to do everything but that in order to get the better of a fella.

“Obviously if a fella gave me a flake I wasn’t going to stand off him, but I wanted the ball first and foremost. If I could do that while marking the best players then that was ideal. Even in training, I wanted to mark Joe Deane and Ben O’Connor. When I was told I was going to be marking someone going into a big game I was actually delighted. It was a compliment if your manager felt you were the man to do a job on one of their best players.”

The victory over Waterford in 1999 set Cork on their way to the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the first time in nine years, their longest drought since ’66. A period of dominance was subsequently being forecast for a young panel.

Wayne Sherlock and DJ Carey 12/9/1999 Sherlock challenges Kilkenny's DJ Carey during the 1999 All-Ireland final. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

That seemed like a reasonable expectation when they retained their Munster title at Tipperary’s expense in 2000, but the wheels gradually came off. An All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Offaly marked the beginning of a run of four losses in their next five championship outings, which culminated with a trouncing at the hands of Galway in the qualifiers in 2002. There were even bigger problems lurking beneath the surface.

After leading Blackrock to successive Cork senior hurling titles, Sherlock captained the Rebels in ’02. His performances earned him an All-Star nomination despite Cork’s struggles, but the year will be remembered for the decision of the panel to withdraw their services due to a row with the County Board over conditions.

The situation was ultimately resolved in the players’ favour and they responded by working their way back to hurling’s summit. For Sherlock, however, the only regret over the saga relates to Bertie Óg Murphy, who succeeded Tom Cashman as Cork senior boss that year.

“It was a messy time but it had to happen,” Sherlock insists. “The strike wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t think we had the players to win All-Irelands for Cork. It wasn’t as if we were saying we’ll be better hurlers if we have more gear. We believed we had the ability to push on but we needed the same backing that other counties had, because we felt we were being held back and we disgraced ourselves against Galway.

“I just regret what happened with Bertie Óg. It had nothing to do with him but he took it personally. It upset me greatly that he felt that way because the players would have gone to hell and back for him. He was the reason a lot of us were playing senior hurling for Cork in the first place.

Bertie Og Murphy 5/5/2002 DIGITAL Bertie Óg Murphy Source: INPHO

“That strike justified itself because we went on to play in four All-Irelands after that, but how it played out for Bertie Óg is regrettable. I hope he doesn’t still have those feelings because fellas would have done anything for him. He gave me my break with Cork and I don’t forget things like that easily.”

After emerging from the dispute, Cork returned to the All-Ireland final in 2003. With Donal O’Grady at the helm they came up short against Kilkenny, but their most significant win along the way was in the Munster final against Waterford. Defending provincial champions for the first time in 39 years, the Deise had avenged their ’99 defeat to Cork by eliminating them en route to winning the Munster title in 2002.

As Waterford sought to win consecutive Munster titles for the first time, John Mullane scored a hat-trick in a tour de force for a team who were again under the stewardship of a Corkonian, Justin McCarthy. With four points to spare, however, the Rebels prevailed.

Waterford had their revenge in another classic provincial final 12 months later. With Mullane being red-carded for an off-the-ball strike on Cork’s Brian Murphy, it was a particularly feisty affair. If there was friction between the teams, according to Sherlock, it was a manifestation of the level of respect they had for each other.

“That bit of bite to it, it’s all part of the game,” he says. “When you meet these fellas now it’s like none of that ever happened on the pitch. It was brilliant. Hurling would be boring without characters doing a bit of mouthing off like that. It’s a good thing as long as it doesn’t cross the line.

John Mullane and Wayne Sherlock Sherlock getting to know John Mullane during the Munster final in 2003. Source: INPHO

“Sully [Diarmuid O'Sullivan] and Dan Shanahan used to be at each other for the whole game. We were all trying to suss each other out and get inside each other’s heads, although I didn’t really like talking during a game. But Waterford had some great characters and they were perfect for getting their crowd behind them.

“I marked Mullane a few times and he was a cult hero. Oh my God, what a player he was. If you gave him an inch he was gone. If you left him in front of you it was nearly impossible to stop him. We got each other in a few headlocks but it was never anything too nasty. I’ve met him plenty of times since and he’s a sound fella. His commentary on the radio is excellent too. I’d listen to him all day. Hurling would be very dull without fellas with the passion for the game like he has.

“It’s actually a pity we didn’t get to meet fellas like that more often over the years, after big games or whatever. Even after an All-Ireland final you’re rushed out of the stadium. It can be a bit impersonal when you’re playing against a fella and you might not cross his path again for another year or two. You’d like there to be a bit more scope for fellas to get to know each other and leave any differences out on the pitch.”

In spite of Cork’s defeat to Waterford in the 2004 Munster final, Sherlock got his hands on a second All-Ireland medal later that year. While the Deise were bettered by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final, Cork regrouped in the qualifiers and were too good for the Cats in September.

He ended the year as an All-Star for the first time and, having just turned 26, Sherlock felt like he was entering the prime of his career. Yet when he accepted his award from GAA president Sean Kelly at the Citywest Hotel that November, little could the best right corner-back of 2004 have known that he’d never start another championship game for Cork.

Wayne Sherlock GAA president Sean Kelly presents Sherlock with his All-Star award. Source: INPHO

Sherlock picked up a severe groin injury while playing for his club in the autumn and the recovery proved to be more complicated than he anticipated. He finally underwent surgery in March 2005 and was back in contention in the summer, but by then new manager John Allen was satisfied with the job being done by Pat Mulcahy.

“I was actually delighted to get a few runs off the bench when I came back because I was starting to write that year off completely,” Sherlock explains. “It was just a big bonus and Pat was playing very well anyway. But I was very disappointed not to get on in the All-Ireland final.”

Cork successfully defended the Liam MacCarthy Cup by overcoming Galway, but Sherlock watched it all from the sidelines. Having played his part along the way, he valued his third Celtic Cross, even if the circumstances weren’t ideal.

“I was actually told to warm up and that I was coming on by one of the selectors,” he says. “I spent 10 minutes warming up but nothing came out of it. I was like a fucking eejit running up and down the line.

“It really annoyed me because I had come on in the Munster final and the All-Ireland semi-final, so obviously I’d love to have played in another final. I was delighted ultimately because we won another All-Ireland, but not to get on — especially after being told to get ready — was a bit of a kick in the balls.”

Conor Hayes and John Allen 11/9/2005 Galway manager Conor Hayes and Cork boss John Allen on the line during the 2005 All-Ireland final. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Determined to regain his place in the team for Cork’s three-in-a-row bid, Sherlock redoubled his efforts over the winter. Pat Mulcahy had also succeeded him on the All-Star team, and while their selection duel generated much debate within Cork, Allen stuck with the Newtownshandrum man throughout 2006. This time Sherlock was introduced during the All-Ireland final, but it was Kilkenny’s day.

“I missed it so much in 2005 that I just told myself that no way was I going to spend another year on the bench. I couldn’t possibly have done any more. I was never so fit in all my life,” Sherlock says.

“Within a week of that All-Ireland final against Galway I was back in the gym four nights a week. I’d be my own biggest critic but I was probably playing the best hurling of my life at that stage. But by the time the championship came around in 2006 it was the same story.

“Being told that I wasn’t playing in the first championship game that year [against Clare] was probably the biggest disappointment of my career. I’m over it now obviously but I found it very hard at the time because I had put so much into it and I genuinely felt I was flying it better than ever.

“Maybe I should have said something [to John Allen], just to see exactly what his reasons were for not starting me, but I just didn’t want to cause any disruption in case it upset the whole panel. I didn’t want to be responsible for creating a bad atmosphere.

“I’d like to have known why I was being left out but I thought it might have been a selfish thing to do at the time. I got the head down again and kept working hard but it didn’t make any difference.”

Billy O'Sullivan and Wayne Sherlock DIGITAL Sherlock in action for Blackrock against Ballygunner's Billy O'Sullivan in the 2001 Munster Club SHC final. Source: INPHO

With Gerald McCarthy replacing John Allen in 2007, Sherlock was initially optimistic about his chances. But little changed for him during Cork’s National League campaign. Days after being left out for a win over Wexford, he informed McCarthy at a training session of his intention to quit.

“I was only 29 and I felt I still had a lot to offer, but maybe they felt I was past it,” Sherlock recalls. “The big thing for me was that you weren’t allowed to play with your club if you were on the Cork panel, even if you were only a sub, which I still find ridiculous. I didn’t want to walk but I just couldn’t justify missing games with my club just to sit on the bench for Cork for another year.

“I grabbed my gear and left without even getting changed, and that was it. I probably cried on the way home in the car. I was upset. I was emotional because I knew it was my last time in the Cork dressing room. I knew I wasn’t going to change my mind too. I just wanted to play hurling because I love the game. I couldn’t be one of those fellas who’s happy to go through the motions to just be on the panel. That’s all there was to it, but it was very hard.

“Looking back on it now, hand on heart, if I had my time over again I would have seen out the season. At the time I thought it was the right decision because I wasn’t enjoying it. I didn’t want to be one of those fellas moping around with their head down. But not seeing out the season is definitely a regret. I got to give my club a few more years, which was great, but it ended with Cork with a bit of drama and I never wanted to do things that way.”

Sherlock, who’s now part of Blackrock’s senior management team, adds: “Don’t get me wrong, there are regrets but there’s a bigger picture overall when I reflect on playing for Cork. If someone had told me when I was 15 that I’d win three county medals, three All-Irelands and an All-Star, I would have laughed at them.

Wayne Sherlock Wayne Sherlock: All-Star and All-Ireland winner in 2004. Source: INPHO

“Looking at the game nowadays and seeing just how much effort goes into winning a county or an All-Ireland, it’s probably only recently that I’m fully appreciating just how big a deal it is to have those achievements. I’m very happy with the career I had, absolutely.”

Tomorrow at Croke Park, Sherlock will puck every ball and feel every challenge from the stands. He believes and hopes that Cork can progress to an All-Ireland final against Galway. If they do, he’ll be envious all over again in the build-up to the decider on 3 September. Most of all, however, the 39-year-old is grateful for the experiences that allow him to know exactly what it’s like to be in the thick of it.

“I’d love to be in those lads’ shoes this week — gearing yourself up for the game, going around all week with the hurley in your hand. I know exactly what they’re going through,” he says.

“I constantly had my hurley with me before a game, no matter where I went. The neighbours across the way from my parents’ house, I drove them mad by pucking the ball off their wall until all hours. Even now I’d still be walking down the street with a hurley and ball if I could, only that people would be looking at me as if I was off my game.

“I’m definitely envious of all the current players. What they’re experiencing now is very special. That urge to be involved is still there. Even talking about it now makes me want to tog out and play a game. And I think that’s a good thing. I hope that never changes. The day I lose that feeling it’ll be the end of the road for me.”

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