Having seen Cork win 11 All-Irelands and contest 16 finals since 1966, NOEL HORGAN selects the ten best Rebel hurlers he has watched strut their stuff for the county
10 – Jerry O’Connor (Newtownshandrum)
It wasn’t until 2004, five years after his gifted twin brother Ben made his championship debut, that Jerry O’Connor nailed down a place on the Cork team. His partnership with Tom Kenny at midfield, along with Brian Corcoran’s decision to come out of retirement, helped the Rebels to go one better that year, having filled the runners-up slot behind Kilkenny in 2003.
Cork retained the All-Ireland in 2005 when Jerry was chosen as Hurler of the Year, and he won three consecutive All-Stars while raising midfield play to a new level with his exploits.
9 – Dermot McCurtain (Blackrock)
After breaking into the Cork team in 1977, McCurtain remained an automatic choice in defence until injury ruled him out of the 1986 final win over Galway. That his position was never in jeopardy is testimony to his ability to perform close to his best so often. While Cork have produced more flamboyant wing-backs over the years, McCurtain’s consistency marks him down as a cut above the majority.
8 – Charlie McCarthy (St Finbarr’s)
Part of a lethal inside line of attack, completed by Ray Cummins and Sean O’Leary, which was a vital weapon in Cork’s armoury during the three-in-a-row years, dapper Charlie McCarthy had few equals when it came to hitting a ground ball cleanly. He scored many important goals with a first-time strike, but he had a lot of other strings to his bow, as can be gauged from the fact that he was thrice honoured as an All-Star (1972, 1977 and 1978) and has five All-Ireland medals to his credit.
7 – Tony O’Sullivan (Na Piarsaigh)
Tony O’Sullivan won an All-Star award as a teenager in 1982, despite not having the best of games in the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny that year. He played a starring role – scoring six points from play – in the Centenary final win over Offaly at Thurles two years later, however, and he continued to exhibit his dazzling skills with regularity up front during a glittering career in the top flight. Honoured as hurler-of-the-year in 1990 when he was arguably the chief architect of Cork’s shock victory over All-Ireland champions Tipp in the Munster final.
6 – Willie Walsh (Youghal)
In his first season on the Cork senior team, Willie Walsh shared in a league final win over Wexford and a Munster final win over Tipperary in 1969. His enormous contribution to both triumphs is reflected in the fact that he outplayed Dan Quigley – one of the leading centre-backs at the time – in the league final and that he scored three goals in the Munster final. After regular centre-back Justin McCarthy was ruled out by injury, Walsh was redeployed in the No 6 slot for the All-Ireland final, and it’s often been said his absence from attack undermined Cork’s bid for ultimate glory in 1969 against Kilkenny. He was back at centre-forward when Cork went all the way in 1970, and he was still a force to be reckoned with before his career ended prematurely following the 1975 season.
5 – Gerald McCarthy (St Finbarr’s)
He might have been a one-sided hurler, unable to strike the ball off his left, but that didn’t prevent Gerald McCarthy from becoming one of the most influential Cork players of his generation.
After winning his first All-Ireland medal at wing-forward in 1966, when he enjoyed the unique distinction of captaining both the senior and U21 team to success, Gerald blossomed into a quality midfielder, filling such a role in the final victories over Wexford in 1970 and 1976. He lined out at wing-back in the 1969 showpiece which was lost to Kilkenny, however, and arguably his finest display at Croke Park came when operating at centre-forward in the 1977 final against Wexford.
Pitted against Mick Jacob, who had excelled at centre-back back in the 1976 decider, McCarthy completely nullified the Wexford pivot’s impact with his power-packed play, ensuring that Cork, with Martin Doherty mastering Tony Doran at the other end, held most of the aces on the day.
4 – Denis Coughlan (Glen Rovers)
When Cork beat Tipperary in the 1989 Munster final, it was their first championship win over the Premier County since 1954, and it owed much to Denis Coughlan’s performance at midfield. Coughlan outplayed the legendary Mick Roche on the day, unveiling his polished skills to the full in the process.
Such skills were very much in evidence again over the course of Cork’s three-in-a-row triumph, as Coughlan repeatedly scaled the heights in the left wing back berth. He was at his most elegant best throughout the 1976 campaign, but, passed over for the Hurler of the Year award which went to Wexford’s Tony Doran, he had to wait another 12 months before picking up the game’s most prestigious individual accolade.
3 – Jimmy Barry-Murphy (St Finbarr’s)
After making his championship debut in 1975, Jimmy Barry-Murphy wasn’t selected on the team to face Tipperary in the opening round of the Munster championship the following year. Sprung from the bench as Cork struggled, he was instrumental in paving the way for a single-point victory – a result that marked the first step on the road to a hat-trick of All-Ireland wins. His switch from wing-forward to the ‘40 on a tiring Mick Jacob was a key factor in swinging the 1976 final in Cork’s favour against Wexford, but it was at full-forward that he later performed to the peak of his considerable powers in the top flight. He turned in innumerable five-star displays at the edge of the square for both club and county, not least in the 1985 Munster final at Pairc Ui Chaoimh where he shattered Tipperary’s ambitions with his sheer brilliance.
2 – Ray Cummins (Blackrock)
A peerless full-forward, Ray Cummins’ career was in its infancy at senior level when he won an All-Ireland medal with Cork and a county medal with UCC in 1970. He went on to enjoy immense success at club level with Blackrock and on the inter-county front, proving the chief orchestrator of the Cork attack on the three-in-a-row side in the mid-seventies.While that was a star-studded Cork team, Cummins was arguably its most valuable asset – the player it could least afford to be without. His uncanny vision and matchless aerial prowess enabled him to master some of the leading full-backs in the game at the time such as Limerick’s Pat Hartigan, Wexford’s Willie Murphy and his Cork colleague Martin Doherty.
1 – Brian Corcoran (Erins Own)
Brian Corcoran was just out of minor ranks when selected as Hurler of the Year in 1992, an honour bestowed on him again after Cork lifted the All-Ireland crown seven years later. It wouldn’t be too wide of the mark to suggest he virtually carried the team on his back during the championship famine in the interim. Jimmy Barry-Murphy is on record as stating the youthful side he steered to the top in 1999 was built around the great man, and it was a source of immense relief to Cork’s hurling fraternity when the elusive All-Ireland medal finally came Corcoran’s way. A colossus at centre-back, he had what was required to perform with distinction in any sector, as was evidenced when he inspired his club to a historic county title success from centre-forward in 1992, and was underlined when he came out of retirement to fill the No 14 shirt and make a major input to Cork’s All-Ireland wins in 2004 and 2005.