The goal that started it all... Timmy McCarthy’s late strike was key for Cork U21 hurlers in 1997

The goal that started it all... Timmy McCarthy’s late strike was key for Cork U21 hurlers in 1997
Cork's Timmy McCarthy holds onto the sliothar despite the pressure from Galway's Michael Healy in the All-Ireland U21 final in 1997. Picture: Matt Browne SPORTSFILE

IT will go down as one of the most important goals in Cork’s hurling history, Timmy McCarthy’s last-gasp winner in the 1997 Munster U21 hurling final.

If that score had not come to pass on that night in Thurles the success story that followed might never have transpired.

The late 1990s were very good to Cork hurling, victory in the 1998 NHL, the last time that the county was successful in the secondary competition.

There were two Munster U21 titles in ’97 and ’98 followed by All-Ireland victories in the same years. Cork had also lifted the '96 provincial U21 crown.

There was a Munster and All-Ireland minor championship to celebrate in 1998 as well and for good measure the county’s intermediate hurling team won the provincial and All-Ireland in 1997.

All those victories, of course, led to the All-Ireland senior victory of 1999. It was what you might describe as a golden era in those three years.

Back to the goal that the Castlelyons clubman delivered in the Munster U21 final of 1997.

Cork had easily accounted for Kerry in their opening game of the game, winning on a scoreline of 6-26 to 0-5.

That victory didn’t do the image of the game any good at all because Kerry were clearly out of their depth and should not have been thrown to the wolves that night.

Things were much tighter in the semi-final against Clare and at the end it was a two-point game, Cork 2-13 to 1-14.

Cork went into the final carrying a heavy underdog tag but gave a fine account of themselves but as the game entered its dying embers it appeared that Tipp had done enough when they led by two points.

But enter McCarthy and that sensational goal that stunned the Tipp section of Semple Stadium into silence.

Very shortly afterwards the whistle blew and so began that era of success.

Cork defeated Wexford in the Fraher Field in the All-Ireland semi-final before taking care of Galway in the final.

A couple of weeks prior to that the intermediate team defeated Galway as well in the All-Ireland final with five members of the U21 team on board, Donal Óg Cusack, Dan Murphy, the U21 captain, Derek Barrett, Timmy McCarthy and Seanie Farrell.

It was a unique double for those players, in all probability the last occasion that ever happened.

Also, on that intermediate team of 1997 was Mark Landers who two short years later would lift the McCarthy Cup.

Pat Mulcahy. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Pat Mulcahy. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Pat Mulcahy was also on that intermediate team before becoming a key figure on the senior team a few years later Sadly, the intermediate grade is no more but back then it served Cork hurling very well and quite a few of the players who went on to senior glory plied their trade in the grade.

The minor winning team of 1998 had future senior star Ronan Curran at centre-back after they had defeated Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final, the team captain being Cathal McCarthy, son of senior legend Charlie. Niall McCarthy came in as a sub in the final.

Cork retained the Munster and All-Ireland U21 titles in 1998 with Joe Deane a very notable addition to the team which was again captained by Ballincollig’s Dan Murphy (below) who still holds the distinction of being the last Cork All-Ireland winning under-21 captain, 22 years later.

Cork’s victory in the 1998 NHL had a very young Diarmuid O’Sullivan captaining the team. In the final they saw off a fancied Waterford side.

The championship of that year, however, did not go according to plan and after defeating Limerick in the Munster opener, they lost to Clare by eight points in the semi-final, Clare, of course, being the reigning All-Ireland champions and who subsequently lost to Offaly in the most talked about All-Ireland semi-final in history when the referee, Jimmy Cooney blew up early when Clare were leading.

The game was replayed and Offaly triumphed.

The Munster championship defeat of 1998 led to a radical overhaul of the team with team boss Jimmy Barry-Murphy making wholesale changes for the 1999 campaign.

He threw caution to the wind and decided to give youth its fling, among the newcomers in Thurles against Waterford was Midleton’s Mickey O’Connell, who was man of the match with a haul of eight points.

O'Connell went on to become a major contributor in the subsequent All-Ireland.

He was a star in those All-Ireland U21 winning years and he has happy memories of that time.

Midleton's Mickey O'Connell breaks past Castlelyons' Darren Sheedy. Picture: Neil Danton/News Pics
Midleton's Mickey O'Connell breaks past Castlelyons' Darren Sheedy. Picture: Neil Danton/News Pics

“Yes, I suppose it started for me when I was on the Cork U14 team with Nicky Barry. On that squad you had Donal Óg, Joe Deane, Timmy Mc and we progressed up the ladder.

“We had two great coaches in Jimmy and Bertie Óg (Murphy) before him at under-21.

“Those two U21 teams in ’97 and ’98 had great players, players that backboned the senior team for years afterwards.

“I think myself that maybe the 1996 team was just as good if not better but we lost to Galway in Ennis.

“Timmy Mac got that late goal in 1997 against Tipp and it really took off from there. My senior debut in ’99 against Waterford went very well, I got a few points and I think we scored 24 that day.

“We beat Clare to win Munster and then Offaly and Kilkenny.

“It was remarkable really, I was very young and in three years I had three All-Ireland medals. Jimmy commanded great respect and I’ll never forget the speech he gave before that game against Waterford.

“Bertie Óg was fantastic too and we had great times during a great period for Cork hurling.’’ And it might never have happened but for that Timmy Mac goal in 1997."

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