Supporting role for Landers
September 11, 2003
Mark Landers swinging hurl
Mark Landers has been here before. An All-Ireland senior hurling final against Kilkenny - the hype, the colour, the pressure and ultimately the joy. A Cork captain answering the tough questions on the biggest day of all. Silencing the doubters, on and off the pitch.
This time out though Landers will be sitting in the stands at Croke Park, hoping that the current Cork captain, Alan Browne, can lead the Munster champions to All-Ireland glory. It's time for the Leesiders to silence the doubters once again.
Back in 1999 Landers was the Cork captain when they beat Kilkenny, 0-13 to 0-12, in the All-Ireland decider. Cork were tipped to crumble. They didn't. These days Landers is concentrating on club hurling with Killeagh. Injuries have not been kind to him and now the far side of 30, his inter-county career may be over.
He was involved earlier in the year though, and looked impressive as well. In Donal O'Grady's first game in charge on January 7, Landers scored 1-3 from midfield against county champions Blackrock - in a game played under floodlights at Pairc Ui Rinn. It was the perfect start to the year.
But his injury nightmare struck again. The midfielder was sidelined with a groin injury and failed to make the championship panel. It was tough, but he has still played a central role in Cork's run in this year's championship, although not on the pitch.
At the tail end of last year Landers was one of the key Cork players involved in the infamous strike action, seeking better facilities and structures for the team. Their actions were widely applauded by many in the game, and the improvements have certainly played their part in Cork's impressive form this year. And although Cork hurling appeared to be in disarray last Christmas, Landers says that there were always going to be better days ahead.
"Yes I could see an All-Ireland final with Cork in it this year. Cork players always maintained that if they had the proper facilities they were as good as any team and I think this year they have shown that," suggests Landers.
"The players have been vindicated, but we just felt we were looking for something we deserved. The facilities must be maintained now. But obviously there were no guarantees that success would automatically follow."
But it has. Back in September 1999, there were not many around the country that felt Cork would wait until now to see Croke Park on All-Ireland final day again. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then and a lot has changed. Mark Landers too, has changed.
Once a captain, now he's a supporter. Looking in from the outside. His extensive injury list includes ligament and cartilage problems, but he battled through it all. In the month leading up to the 1999 final, Landers was himself a major doubt for the game because of a cartilage injury.
"The main thing I remember about the build-up to that game was the injury. I was doing my best to make it. Liam O'Reilly was brilliant and I worked with him for three weeks to make sure I was ready for the final. I was also very lucky that I was allowed off work so I could concentrate on getting myself right.
"I remember the bunting around Killeagh as well The people were fantastic because it is a real hurling area and everybody was just looking forward to the game. There was a great atmosphere.
"The day itself worked out brilliantly. I introduced the President to the players and was very relaxed. I can honestly say I really enjoyed the game, the whole occasion. We didn't worry about Kilkenny being favourites, and I think we got the best out of every Cork player," recalls the affable Landers.
When he made his senior inter-county debut against Limerick in 1998, Landers had no way of knowing that he would make history the following September, when he became the first player ever to receive the Liam McCarthy Cup in the centre of the pitch.
"It was a daunting task because nobody had ever done it before so you weren't really sure how it would go. Thankfully it turned out fairly well I think."
And for Cork fans, he summed up their feelings when he grasped the famous trophy and uttered those immortal words - 'Welcome back to Leeside Liam McCarthy, we missed you a lot.'
The trip back to Cork was also a memorable and emotional one. "We stopped first in Mallow Station and the scene nearly brought tears to the players from north Cork. The reception we got was amazing.
"Cork city that night was just incredible. They said 40 or 50,000 fans turned out, but it looked more like 100,000. The streets were just covered in red and white. It was quite incredible, something you would never forget. Cork supporters are fantastic. The Cork supporters really galvanise the players."
Cork's supporters have often been a sixteenth man for their team in big games and Donal O'Grady will hope they can continue that trend in this year's final. He will also aim to recreate that victorious journey back home, and Landers believes they can.
"There is no doubt that Kilkenny are clear and overwhelming favourites but I wouldn't be afraid of them. This Cork team might not have built up the same reputation as the likes of Kilkenny or Clare but they are a very good team. It's good that Kilkenny are favourites.
"The biggest thing for Cork is to try and achieve what we did in 1999 - stop Kilkenny scoring goals. If Cork can do that, then there is no reason whey they can't win."
But what about Kilkenny's awesome full-forward line? "I believe we have players at the back that are good enough to hold the Kilkenny forwards. Diarmuid O'Sullivan is an absolutely fantastic hurler and a great inspiration to the rest of the players around him."
Much has been made of the new rubber centred sliothar, and although Landers believes it will play a part in the game, he doesn't feel it will have a major impact on the overall result.
"I believe this is a 50-50 game. However, the ball should have been introduced much earlier in the year if they intended to use it in the All-Ireland final. Players are making more mistakes with this sliothar, but it will be the same for both teams, and I don't think it will be the winning or losing of the game for either side."
Of course Cork have been written off already this year. Clare, on the back of a powerful victory over Tipperary, were tipped to put the Leesiders to the sword in their first outing. Against Tipp, Clare played like a team possessed. But when they came face to face with Cork they were hung out to dry. With nowhere to run Cork consigned the Banner to a heavy defeat, 1-19 to 0-10.
Defending Munster champions, Waterford, were next up in the provincial final and Cork dethroned the Decies to claim the title for the 48th time, their first since 2000. It took a replay to beat Wexford in the All-Ireland semi-final, but the Croke Park experience will have benefited the Cork players. And so now an All-Ireland final with the might Cats beckons.
Mark Landers would still love to be part of it all, and to a certain extent he is. This time he will have the chance to enjoy the spectacle from the stand. He can roar on the players and play his part as being a Cork supporter galvanising the team.
"I am at a different stage of my career now, but I have been luckier than most. I genuinely hope Cork beat Kilkenny this year, and I think they can," he concludes.
Of course, up in the stand, he will still be hitting every ball with them, catching every puckout and taking every knock. Players never totally let go.
For now though he is a Cork supporter. In 1999, he was their leader, their captain, their main man. This year, from the stand, Mark Landers can be their sixteenth man.
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