CORK football is this week basking in the warm glow of a first All-Ireland minor victory in 19 years.
That the win was secured in some style in extra time after a dramatic late Conor Corbett goal saved the Rebels in the first place, and coming a month after a stunning comeback landed the U20 All-Ireland, adds to feeling that something special is happening.
‘Rebels for Sam!’ Alright, we’ll cool the jets on that one for now, but it’s now a legitimate target for the next decade.
It genuinely is a case of zeroes to heroes for the football fraternity. Though the Cork U21s reached the All-Ireland final in 2016 they suffered a pretty harrowing loss to Mayo while the minors had watched Kerry power to a staggering five All-Irelands in succession. There were murmurs of promising youngsters coming through the development squads but the Kingdom schools’ utter dominance of the Corn Uí Mhuirí didn’t back that up.
The seniors’ humiliating relegation from Division 2 earlier this spring left even the diehard Cork football supporter bereft of hope. When Conor Counihan was appointed in what’s effectively a Director of Football role he was given a five-year timeframe to revive the game in Rebel county.
Even if it will take a few seasons to integrate younger players, especially with the inter-county age-grades dropping a year from U21 and U18, the mindset is completely different from here. Corkonians can be proud of their status as a football stronghold again.
There’s a huge gap to be bridged to Dublin and Kerry, but all Cork teams can carry themselves with a bit more confidence from here.
None of the young guns in the minor or U20 squads were known to the wider sporting public on Leeside before the summer, apart from perhaps Jack Cahalane, as a younger brother of Damien and Conor, and Mark Cronin, whose siblings Alan and Stephen also pulled on the Blood and Bandages.
Now Corbett, scorer of a majestic 1-7 from play in the minor All-Ireland, and Cathal O’Mahony, free-taker supreme for the U20s, are cast as leading lights of the new wave.
The likes of Cronin, Cahalane, Michael O’Neill, Daniel Linehan, Brian Hartnett, Damien Gore, Blake Murphy, Paul Ring, Kealan Scannell and many more appear to have the tools to progress through the ranks.
Of course, no matter how gifted a crop of players is, just a handful will become established regulars at senior.
From the All-Ireland winners in 2000, only James Masters, Kevin MacMahon and Noel O’Leary did that, though Conrad Murphy was dogged by injuries and Kieran ‘Hero’ Murphy opted for hurling, though Kevin Murphy and Brian O’Regan were regulars in Cork squads.
The minor winning Rebel team of 1999 was also hugely promising but Tom Kenny and Ronan Curran went down the hurling route, Damien Delaney became a professional soccer player and Bernie Collins dabbled with Aussie Rules before lifting the Andy Scannell Cup with Castlehaven. David Niblock and Conor McCarthy did get ample game-time at senior, McCarthy starting at wing-forward in the 2007 All-Ireland final loss to Kerry, but the path to the top is never as clear as you’d hope.
Cork is often cast as a hurling county, which it undeniably is, but it’s also the strongest dual county in GAA. The style of play the minors and U20s collected silverware with, a blend of hard running and kick-passing, was highly appealing, and both teams had the self-belief, that confidence bordering on cockiness, that is often described as ‘Corkness’.
Having outstanding management structures in place was the first and most critical building block to lifting two All-Irelands. Bobbie O’Dwyer had a great blend in the minor set-up, including Ollie ‘Rue’ O’Sullivan and James McCarthy for that bit of West Cork hardness, Billy O’Connor showcasing Duhallow’s fluid, Kerry-esque approach as well as James Masters and Mick Hannon bringing that city swagger.
Keith Ricken has no shortage of that, yet the U20 bainisteoir recruited Maurice Moore, who had cut his teeth coaching Carbery Rangers to a senior county in 2016 when Ronan McCarthy was manager, Colm O’Neill and Mícheál Ó Cróinín to guide the forwards, and Pat Spratt for his vast experience and knowledge of the north Cork scene.
A bit of patience from everyone will be hugely important in 2020. Undoubtedly the seniors need to escape Division 3 but it’s not realistic to expect more than a few U20 graduates to line out, come championship.
At least the kids of Cork have new heroes to look up to, which will have a terrific benefit in the medium term.
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