Nothing to declare but their genius

Q: Who are the three greatest hurlers of all time?
A: Jimmy, Barry, and Murphy

For years I railed against developing cults around individual sportsmen. Success is ultimately a function of talent and inate ability. The thinking that certain individuals are bestowed with a charisma over and above their natural flair that could raise the output of those who come into contact with it was an after-the-fact fantasy. Forget pride or passion. Give me performance.

It’s been a bit of a shock then to see the extent to which Liverpool have thrived under Kenny Dalglish. At the start of the year I was at Anfield when Liverpool had to rely on a last-minute goal to beat Bolton Wanderers. Yesterday the last-minute goal was a consolation for Bolton and featured one of the most desultory celebrations you’ll ever see. The Trotters had been given a dose of the trotts from the Reds and they knew it. How times change.

What has wrought this change? Owen Coyle was quick to point out the megabucks that Liverpool have spent, and it’s not something that could (or should) be dismissed. If Bolton were given a free £20 million to spend on one player there’s no way they could lump it on a player of Jordan Henderson’s stature, yet Liverpool can do it and just move on to the next one. Money doesn’t talk, it swears, and that’s a Rab C Nesbitt level of profanity.

And yet, someone who grew up in the mean streets of the Gorbals like Owen Columba Coyle should take no offence when I say that there’s a reason he has never been given access to the kind of money that fellow Glaswegian Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish has received. Both may share a memorable middle name with Diego Armando Maradona and Edson Arantes de Nascimento, but in sporting terms only one of the Jocks is mentioned in the same breath as those two.

Snobbery does have a real impact. I was at Liverpool’s last match against Bolton on New Year’s Day. There was a toxic atmosphere at the game, despite having gotten shot of George Gillett and Tom Hicks. Contrast this to the giddy text I received from my brother-in-law raving about the party atmosphere that pervaded Anfield yesterday. There was none of the tension you might have expected based on Liverpool notorious ability to shoot themselves in the foot (see: the last home game against Sunderland). The return of Kenny Dalglish has injected a sense of belief into the club that no-one else could have managed. Which is great news for those of us looking to re-sell season ticket vouchers back to the club. Result!

So what has this got to do with Waterford or Gaelic games? The answer lies in the return to the limelight of another man famously blessed/cursed with three names. There can have been fewer more explosive introductions to sporting fame than that of Jimmy Barry Murphy – and I know strictly speaking his surname should be hyphenated but it just doesn’t look right, he’ll always be ‘Jimmy Barry’. You knew he must have been young when he played against Galway in the 1973 football final, yet it was still a surprise to find out he was 19. He didn’t look a day under 25 and Galway saw the man bury them with a thunderous flourish, posterity given an added boost with a stellar piece of commentary by Michael O’Hehir – “Jimmy on the 14 what’s he going to dooooo A GOAL!!”:

That was well before my time but his legend was well and truly established by the early 80’s. There were a lot of noteworthy names on that Cork hurling team, but JBM was the man. If nothing else he won just about everything the game had to offer. From what I can see, the only combination of hurling/football + Senior/Under-21/Minor/Club titles that he didn’t win was the All-Ireland Under-21 football title. I’m open to correction on that, but all those titles still pale in significance against his swashbuckling style on the field and self-effacing class off it. He was the archetypal GAA hero and when he retired – itself a perfectly timed gesture coming immediately after another All-Ireland success, thus leaving the stage while the mob were still clamouring for more – the GAA felt slightly duller than before.

JBM must be secretly aware of his own self-worth because he only rations out his magic when Cork hurling is in the direst need. Cork were a complete shambles in the mid-90’s when he became manager, shipping a hiding at home to Limerick in one of his first outings. By 1999 they were in the last chance saloon, throwing in a half-dozen newbies against a Waterford team in the unusual place of being confident of victory. Yet that desperate toss of the dice worked, undoing much of the great work we had performed in the previous year and catapulting Cork back into the big time.

How much of that was down to him is hard to say, but we’ll find out soon enough because he has stepped back into the breach when Cork are at an even lower level than they were back in the mid 1990’s. Stuffed at every turn in Senior and Minor level, the performance of their Under-21’s in losing that thriller to Limerick should not disguise how bad things are. Add in the poison still lingering in their collective system by the various strikes and they badly need the magic that a great man can bring. I haven’t commented on the speculation surrounding the future manager of Waterford because some of the stuff has been ludicrous beyond belief – Liam bloody Dunne! – but it’s no disrespect to anyone being mentioned to say that none of them has JBM’s stature. No county apart from Cork does. He will inspire just by being there. You only have to look at Kenny Dalglish to see the effect such a figure can have. Life is about to get more difficult for Waterford. Hurling is going to be a lot brighter though.