JUST before half-time in the Premier Intermediate hurling final last October Fr O’Neill’s had a 65.
Their number 14 trotted out and went through his familiar free-taking routine – place ball, arm up, one step back, crouch, hurley twirls, look at posts, left foot back and then step forward into the strike.
The forwards inside near the goal barely looked at the sliotar as it sailed between the posts, the defenders didn’t really look at all and the goalkeeper was heading for his puck-out without a glance.
There was something so routine and obvious about the score that the umpire may as well have raised the white flag before the ball was hit and it’s hard to think of another player who strikes the ball with such clear intent and confidence that nothing is going to happen other than a score.
There’s something mesmeric about watching back, one after another, Deccie Dalton’s scores from that night, the perfect technical striking that sent shot after shot over from all different angles and distances with that exact same purpose, to see a player so purely in the zone of scoring.
His penalty had that same feeling (five steps back this time, step forward and just bang) of inevitability. He nailed one free early in the second half from one of those ridiculous distances where it looked like he was playing on an under-sized pitch.
The thing is that Dalton’s been in this run for quite a remarkable time now, routinely totting up 1-9s and 1-12s, and he’s still just 22.
It’s not just the volume of scores. In the first half that night against Kilworth he did this lovely delicate flick off the ground with his foot for an assist.
It is the scores though of course, the sheer scale and yes, the clutch nature of a lot of them.
Dalton’s name first came into many GAA heads with a late, late penalty to beat Waterford U21s in 2017, again dispatched with the sort of venom that made any doubt seem silly.
He was top scorer in the senior hurling championship (3-55, more than 20 points ahead of the next player) and the premier intermediate hurling championship (3-45) last year.
There’s that willingness to go for things that people like from their Cork forwards.
He takes on sidelines with the same type of conviction as frees – the competitions at Cork training with Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon will be interesting.
Dalton won’t tend towards safety from close-range frees either, and he has that eye for nicking important goals as well. Again in the county final for Imokilly, a little over 10 minutes in Dalton stood over a free with five Glen players on the goal line – most players might have taken a settling score, Dalton blasted low to the net.
Hell, his first touch in senior hurling championship against Limerick was a low-percentage option from way out by the sideline under pressure and slightly off balance; he went for it and scored a point.
There are markers in the past and hopes for the future for Cork supporters.
Dalton was initially of course a goalkeeper, played number one for Cork minors and for Imokilly in the first county final win of 2017 and alternated between goal and outfield for Imokilly for a time. A bit like Bryan Sheehan for Kerry footballers and you can see a similarity here in the use of that distance from kicks/pucks.
When asked in a profile a few years ago for his favourite position he simply said anywhere and you can picture that scanned puck-out launching and pinging balls out into all sorts of positions on the field.
But his ball-striking and scoring became just that little bit too vital to leave in goals and it’ll be interesting to see just what role Dalton might have to play in a Cork senior team that desperately needs more scoring power around the forward line but that already has a number one go-to guy from placed balls in Patrick Horgan.
Can Cork find the space for another finisher? Can they afford not to?
Dalton’s not the only subplot to the weekend’s All-Ireland finals.
The East Cork hurling story goes onto another level of dominance with two teams at Croke Park for intermediate and junior finals.
The influence of Noel Furlong on Fr O’Neill’s and now Russell Rovers as coach has been noteworthy. There’s something interesting about the nature of momentum here too and how one person or group can influence the surge in a club.
We’ve written here about Knocknagree footballers before, inspired by one man’s obsession in many ways.
Fr O’Neill’s won the junior title 15 years ago and this recent upswing has been pushed along by one extremely talented bunch of players who’ve come through from underage together, winning Premier minor titles, a brilliant U21 county a few years back and who’ve now shifted that mentality to senior hurling.
Look at a team like the Dublin footballers who’ve won so much this past few years, a player like Brian Fenton who just doesn’t know what it feels like to lose games when it comes to the proper business end of things.
We’ve seen comparisons recently between a group like Liverpool who seem to know exactly how to win every type of game now and say Man Utd, who just don’t seem to have that leadership core that knows how to control certain types of matches or who have that experience of winning consistently.
Fr O’Neill’s have more or less forgotten how to lose games. Deccie Dalton has forgotten how to miss after an entire couple of seasons worth of games where he’s been the difference, the one certainty being that he will be top scorer every single time he goes out for club and division.
Watch for more scores this weekend (a tough outing against a Kilkenny side, practise for future days out).
They don’t look like stopping anytime soon.