Cork hurlers lose Keane edge to channel their inner Irwin
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Cork hurlers lose Keane edge to channel their inner Irwin

WATCHING an interview with Denis Irwin on Setanta Sports the other day I was struck, as usual, by his talent for understatement.

He described his 21-year career with Leeds, Oldham, Manchester United and Wolves as if he was a jobbing tradesman, settling down here and there, doing his thing, paying the rent, maybe getting out on a Saturday evening for a pizza and a pint or two.

If I hadn't seen him play so many times, I'd have had no idea what an outstanding footballer he was. The man was a rare combination of intelligence and craft. His 'Mr Consistency' nickname never seemed appropriate to me, it downplayed his brilliance, reduced him to the level of the honest pro "putting in a shift".

"Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple." Woodie Guthrie probably wasn't talking about Denis Irwin when he said this, but he may as well have been.

And, yes, the over-used label of genius is appropriate here. In the wonderful film Looking for Eric, Cantona describes his sweetest moment.

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Eric Cantona: "It wasn't a goal ... It was a pass."

Eric Bishop: "To Irwin against Spurs. Yes, beautiful."

EC: "Yes, I knew how clever he was, left, right-footed. It came in a flash, I just flicked it with the outside of my boot, surprised everyone, he took it in his stride and my heart soared ... Like an offering to the great god of football."

EB: "What if he'd have missed?"

EC: "You have to trust your teammates, always, if not we are lost."

Irwin was on Cantona's bandwidth. If pushed to describe the same moment he would not come up with anything profound, nothing beyond. "I played a give-and-go with Eric really and just picked my spot." But that doesn't make him any less of an artist.

Roy Keane also appreciated the majesty of Irwin. In his TV show with Patrick Vieira a while back Keane insisted "you'd have Irwin in there all day long" when choosing between him or Ashley Cole for the left-back slot on their fantasy team.

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Keane and Irwin. I'm not a United fan but took pride in the fact that, as they were winning all around them, two of their best players were from Cork city. They make for an interesting pair.

Their peculiar Cork-with-a-twist-of-Manc accents are identical but they couldn't be more different personalities. Keane is fire, scorching his way through every obstacle. Irwin, fluid, with an understated grace, is water.

Keane is something of a spiritual totem for Cork sportspeople. The likes of Ronan O'Gara and Donal Óg Cusack shared his drive and uncompromising nature. The last successful Cork hurling team - that won All-Irelands in 2004 and '05 - were carved out of Keane.

They demanded an attention of detail and a standard of preparation that was foreign to their administrators. They wore 40-yard stares and wristbands with motivational slogans, they went on strike, they pissed off a lot of traditionalists, they backed each other to the hilt and won a hell of a lot of games between 2003-06.

I love Roy Keane and I loved that team.

When the last members were ushered towards the dressing room door and replaced entirely by a quieter, more serene group I thought my emotional investment would taper off a little. And for a while it did. Of course, I still supported the team, but not with the same passion as before.

Then, unexpectantly this team grew on me. Where once we had the Rock and Donal Óg and Corcoran and Sean Óg - huge characters of thrilling intensity - now the leaders are the likes of Anthony Nash and Patrick Horgan. Where once they were Keanesque, now they are Irwinian.

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Hoggie and Nash come across as quietly spoken, relaxed men - much like the rest of the team. To dismiss them as lightweight as a result is to dismiss the likes of Denis Irwin and, indeed, Jimmy Barry Murphy.

Irwin learned all about quiet excellence as a boy in Togher, playing football and hurling for the Barrs where, of course, JBM was on a pedestal. He is still on that pedestal. "Class" is the word most typically offered whenever and wherever his name is mentioned. In victory or defeat he carries the same dignity, Kippling would approve.

The more you think about the JBMs, the Irwins to the Horgans and Nashs, the more you consider that it is they - and not the Keane sorts - who are most typical of Cork sportsmen.

The image of Cork competitors as spiky, cocky, mouthy Rebels has taken hold, especially in the years since Saipan. But look at the sporting stars from Cork's past - Sonia O'Sullivan, Dave Barry, Jack Lynch, Peter Stringer, Noel Cantwell, Tom Kiernan, even Christy Ring - there was very little other than modesty and humility from them.

Same with the storied teams - the hurlers of the late '70s and the '40s, Cork Hibs - the will to win allied to the distain for defeat was there, but it never manifested itself in public discourse.

Keanism was a phase in Cork sporting life but it was never the default mode. There have of course been exceptions (such as Billy Morgan, total legend) but Cork sporting history has not been a marriage of success to rubbing people up the wrong way.

Today's hurling team is a return to type - talented, smart, full of quiet self-belief. To be a true return to type they, naturally, have to win something big. And then do it again and again.

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My fear is there was a sense of climax about the Munster success. It was the first silverware since '06, the last game at the Pairc and no doubt a lively night on Leeside afterwards.

Tipperary are incredibly dangerous opponents. Their skill levels are second to none and, since enduring heavy criticism after the Limerick defeat, they have something to prove. Like Cork, they are accused of lacking that resolve which is crucial to get over the line in the key contests. They'rem perhaps too nice.

Though perhaps people are mistaking niceness for weakness. Being a nice guy didn't stop Jimmy Barry Murphy accumulating six Celtic crosses or Denis Irwin seven Premier Leagues, three FA Cups and a Champions League medal.

Mountain, marble or granite - it doesn't matter what's in the way, water finds a path to the ocean. Cork need to find a way back to their own selves. That means winning this game. And the next.