BETTER late than never.
That term might well apply to the U21 grade in Cork this year.
While there is still no conclusion to the Premier U21 football championship, the hurling series came to an end last Sunday afternoon on the 4G pitch (where would we be without it) and, similar to last season, the best was very much kept until last.
Twelve months ago, Fr O’Neill’s and Midleton served up an absolute cracker that required extra-time before a resolution was found.
Midleton were bitterly disappointed with the loss but with quite a few of the team eligible again this time, hopes were high that the redemption road could be travelled.
And, to be fair, they gave it one hell of an effort but losing was their lot again, this time by just a point to another East Cork neighbour, Sarsfields That’s a bitter pill to swallow, losing back to back county finals.
The fact that they contributed enormously to the enjoyment of both finals will be of little consolation to these young Midleton players.
Maybe the fact that they were championship inactive for a month whilst their opponents had two games in that period was a factor in their demise.
Sars came into this final fairly well battle-hardened after wins over Douglas and the Rockies and that had to stand to them coming down the final stretch last Sunday.
And proof of that was that last-gasp goal that won them the game.
They had that character to battle right to the death and that got them the huge prize on offer.
Of course, it’s not acceptable that a competition of this importance should be concluded three days before Christmas.
It was not far from being a similar story with the rest of the grades under this U21 umbrella.
A week earlier we had the Barrs winning the Premier 2 competition, Castlemartyr winning the B competition and in the aftermath of the Sars-Midleton game, Fermoy winning the A competition.
In all probability, without the 4G pitch, some of those grades would not have been concluded at all in the calendar year.
The Premier 1 grade certainly threw up some fine encounters and the clubs involved, winners and losers have reason to take a lot from them.
The U21 grade should be a significant platform for any club going forward and the majority of the players should be able to graduate on to a higher plateau.
The victory by Sars was another illustration of the work being put in down in Riverstown.
On Sunday you had star player Ray Ryan at the helm and you could not find a better man anywhere.
It was another case of a former senior stalwart putting back something into a game that he himself got so much out of.
And that’s what you need, a person that younger players respect and listen to, trying to follow the superb example that he has set.
Over the past 10 or 11 years, Sars have been there or thereabouts every year, winning four senior titles, losing one or two and always being involved at the business end of the campaign.
The victory of the current U21 crop almost certainly guarantees that they will be to the forefront for quite some time with players like Liam Healy, Dylan Hogan, Jack O’Connor, Cian Darcy and more about.
Another club that will take huge encouragement from the campaign are the Rockies.
One must recall that in their opener they got trounced by Sars to the tune of 17 points but fast forward a few months later to their semi-final meeting and there was only a puck of a ball in it.
And the Church Road team could easily have won the game.
That’s a stirring comeback from the abyss by any standards and huge encouragement will be taken from that.
Midleton, of course, despite this recent loss and the loss of 12 months earlier have a platform in place too that should serve them well going forward.
They have made a big appointment with the naming of Ben O’Connor as their new head man.
That’s a huge move for a club that always tended to keep things in-house.
And maybe that’s what is needed, an outside voice that will be different, one that has an excellent pedigree on and off the field.
Look what he did with Charleville, taking them to a PIHC triumph which led them to Croke Park and an All-Ireland club final appearance. Midleton have the platform and the players to thrive under his guidance and they will have seen what James O’Connor did for their near neighbours Carrigtwohill back in 2011 and what he’s now doing with Fr O’Neill’s.
It’s not always the case that an outsider will work the oracle but in Ben O’Connor, Midleton should prosper.
The victory of the Barrs in the Premier 2 U21 competition was hugely significant too, meaningful silverware in a club that hasn’t had a huge amount to celebrate in recent times on the hurling front.
Coupled with the appointment of Aidan Fitzpatrick as senior boss, following on from the good work put in by Ronan Curran, this win should be a big stepping stone too out in Togher.
For the likes of Fermoy, Bride Rovers, Castlemartyr and Newcestown, their U21 campaigns should act as platforms too going forward.
Overall, we got some fine games in the entire U21 campaign across the grades but their conclusion was still far too late.