Cork U20 ace: 'I played in the full-back line for a while with the school, it was Paul Kerrigan moved me up front'

Cork U20 ace: 'I played in the full-back line for a while with the school, it was Paul Kerrigan moved me up front'

At EirGrid U20 All-Ireland launch were Brian O'Leary, Dublin, Antoin Fox, Tyrone, Mark Cronin, Cork, and Jack Glynn, Galway. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile 

THIS time last year, the Cork U20 footballers were quietly preparing for championship with little or no expectation of success here on Leeside.

Manager Keith Ricken had other ideas though and with the likes of Mark Cronin and Blake Murphy, who are both underage again, spearheading the attack they recorded thrilling victories over Kerry, Tyrone and Dublin.

Mark Cronin hits the net against Tyrone. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Mark Cronin hits the net against Tyrone. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Dial it forward 12 months and the Rebels are one of the favourites for All-Ireland glory, notwithstanding a likely Munster final showdown with Kerry on enemy soil. The summer scheduling of the U20 grade in 2019 suited Cork, with Ricken and his management team coming in late and slowing building confidence.

The group that had no shortage of talent but was suffering from a malaise in Cork football. They reaped a rich reward by the time the season concluded.

The GAA, in their wisdom have brought, the U20 championship forward again so it runs across schools and third-level competitions, but the Rebels are focused on the task in hand. They recently lifted the John Kerins Cup, the preseason tournament, and are “embracing the new challenge” according to Mark Cronin.

“We probably have a mark on our back now alright, but it's about how we deal with that. Three's a lot of talk about Cork now, especially after the minor All-Ireland as well and a few of those lads have stepped straight up into the panel.

“The way we look at it, expectation isn't a bad thing, it means you've a good panel and are capable of doing well. We'll embrace it, that's the message from Keith and the selectors.” 

Cronin only linked up with the U20 group again in recent weeks, having been involved in Nemo's All-Ireland club run and then the Sigerson Cup with UCC. Regular games are something he's used to from his teenage years crossing over development squads, schools action in Críost Rí and soccer for College Corinthians, on top of Nemo duty.

“Load management is key. Sometimes less is more, especially in terms of training but I'm lucky with Nemo, UCC and Cork that there are top-class people involved in the management team so they make sure it balances out.” 

Bar a few shoulder problems, Cronin has largely avoided injury to date.

He's now very much a marked-man though, well-known from his goal-scoring exploits against Tyrone and Dublin last season at crucial intervals.

“There are six go-forwards in any team I'm on. I'm lucky that way because you're just trying to get your place in those squads. Nemo have a good tradition of producing forwards and I always looked up to Joe Kavanagh and Colin Corkery as the guys you want to be like.” 

It was another iconic Nemo forward that inspired Cronin to become a predator closer to goal. In Trabeg he started off as a midfielder, as many of the best young players do in their early days, but upon landing in Críost Rí he was deployed in the full-back line.

No doubt that was influenced by the fact he's the younger brother of Alan and Stephen, crafty but tenacious defenders who represented Cork in four All-Ireland finals before he emulated them.

“It was at U16 level in school that Paul Kerrigan thought I'd make a good forward. It was a shock to the system but it was definitely better than being in the full-back line anyway, anywhere but there!” 

Bootless but deadly! Coláiste Chríost Rí's Mark Cronin kicks over a point minus his boot against Tralee CBS in the Corn Uí Mhuirí semi-final in 2017. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Bootless but deadly! Coláiste Chríost Rí's Mark Cronin kicks over a point minus his boot against Tralee CBS in the Corn Uí Mhuirí semi-final in 2017. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Críost Rí came close to Corn Uí Mhuirí glory in 2017 and after a slow start in terms of silverware in Nemo, Cronin collected minor, U21 and senior crowns.

“I won a league playing a year up at U16 but the thing with Nemo is we actually have a small enough pick of players 'on the age' so the idea is to keep everyone involved and then it'll come together at minor.”

Soccer was a passion for a while and though he enjoyed representing Corinthians, Nemo were his first love.

"I was involved with the Cork Kennedy Cup panel (U14) but it clashed with Féile, so obviously I was only going to pick one thing there!"

There's no shortage of quality forwards in Nemo to replicate, including Cork ace Luke Connolly, and he's a fan of Monaghan's Conor McManus and Dublin's Paul Mannion.

"They're both great finishers, they'd often score 1-3 or 1-4 but they've five or six turnovers in every game too. They work hard, play for the team."

If Cork do the same over the coming weeks they've a good chance of retaining the All-Ireland. The nine-point comeback against Dublin in last year's final is something Cronin will always cherish.

"That was special, really special. The crowd were key really in coming back after such a bad start. It lifts you 15, 20% to hear that. It shows that Cork fans will get behind football if you give them something to shout about."

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