Back In Action: Jimmy Barry-Murphy is filling the Cork senior hurling hotseat once more. INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Wednesday Watch: The return of JBM and the rise of Donegal

After an absence of almost twelve years, Jimmy Barry-Murphy returns to the inter-county senior hurling management game for a championship tie next Sunday.

BRIAN CODY HAD yet to win an All-Ireland senior hurling title as a manager. Declan Ryan was still a lynchpin in the Tipperary forward line. Conor Lehane was taking his first steps as a hurler with the Midleton U8 side. And Jimmy Barry-Murphy was donning the Cork senior bainisteoir bib for what looked like the last time.

Twelve years later, he is back at the coalface in high summer. The scale of hurling change since Barry-Murphy was last at the helm for Cork in a championship encounter, that All-Ireland semi-final loss to Offaly in 2000, has been striking. Cody went on a month later to lift the Liam McCarthy Cup, a feat he has replicated on seven occasions since then and is the pre-eminent manager in the land. Ryan is now the Tipperary sideline operator that Barry-Murphy will go toe-to-toe with in next Sunday’s Munster semi-final. And Lehane is the brightest young prospect he has at his disposal in Cork, poised to make his starting championship debut at senior level.

It’s a different hurling world  but the name, stripped down to its initials, remains as evocative and iconic as ever and still holds as much weight in hurling circles around the country. The return of JBM generated an upsurge in optimism amongst Cork hurling followers this season. They responded by attending league games in healthy numbers during the spring and were rewarded with some fine wins like that opening Saturday night under the Páirc Uí Rinn floodlights against Waterford and that narrow success on the last Sunday in March against Kilkenny in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Yet Kilkenny, as is their habit, returned to administer a sharp dose of reality in early May. Cork were soundly beaten in that Division 1 league final in Thurles, the fury with which their opponents hurled from the off proving a timely reminder of the gap that Barry-Murphy and his players need to bridge. The nature of that league decider defeat has lead to a reappraisal of expectations amongst supporters as Cork prepare to make their championship bow next Sunday.

But it’s six years since Cork’s last Munster senior title and there has been just one provincial final day outing in the interim. Recent seasons have featured disappointing trips to Croke Park and low-key exits in the qualifiers. In addition the county is locked into a seemingly endless cycle of underage despair, epitomised by the recent Munster U21 quarter-final that fell out of their grasp and into Tipperary’s lap. Thus Barry-Murphy’s second coming was always going to be a long-term project.

No one would have been more aware of that than the St Finbarr’s man himself. His enthusiasm for the task at hand remained as apparent when he spoke at a press briefing last week as it was when he reflected after his opening assignment in the Waterford Crystal Cup against Kerry in front of 513 supporters on a dreary Saturday afternoon in January.

The hurling landscape has shifted significantly since August 2000 yet Barry-Murphy’s stature has not been diminished. The faith of Cork hurling followers may have taken a knocking in recent years. But they trust their manager and will journey down to the Páirc next Sunday in the hope he can lead them to better days.

Just A Thought…

They were pilloried from pillar to post in 2011, a group blamed for the ruination of Gaelic football. It never seemed to unduly bother Jimmy McGuinness and his Donegal charges though. Plenty may blame them for the torrid spectacle that unfolded in last August’s All-Ireland semi-final but for the Ulster county’s players and management it was ultimately a special season as they ended their 19-year Anglo Celt Cup drought.

It was clear over the winter that if Donegal were to bridge the gap to becoming All-Ireland contenders, they would need to tweak their playing style. And year two of the McGuinness era has brought about just that with a more expansive and attack-minded approach. They have sailed through their opening two Ulster championship assignments with their latest victory against Derry last Saturday night particularly emphatic.

Granted their opposition to date have been weak and their upcoming Ulster semi-final tilt with Tyrone will represent a sterner challenge. However amidst the high work ethic and defensive organisation that we have come to expect from Donegal, there have been signs of a team starting to express themselves and utilising their attacking talent.

When you consider this was a county that meekly bowed out of the 2009 championship against Cork and the 2010 championship against Armagh, it has been a startling transformation to become a side with genuine hopes of breaking the stranglehold of the Big Three of Dublin, Kerry and Cork. What odds that they soon start to get some credit?

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