He couldn't make the Douglas first team as a teenager but now Brian Harnett is taking his chance in Rebel red

He couldn't make the Douglas first team as a teenager but now Brian Harnett is taking his chance in Rebel red
Picture: Eddie O'Hare

BRIAN Hartnett is the prime example of the hidden talent in Cork football.

The Douglas native has been a revelation as a deep-lying midfielder for the U20 group that surprised everyone by brushing past Kerry in the Munter final and beating Tyrone to reach tomorrow's All-Ireland final against Dublin. Hartnett's powerful running, intelligent passing and ability to cover across the defence has been essential to the recent success.

Yet Harnett never featured in Rebel red before this year. In his mid-teens he couldn't make the Douglas first team, let alone a Cork development squad, and prioritised hurling instead, including at Harty Cup level with Christians.

Brian Hartnett in Harty action. Picture: Don Moloney/Press 22
Brian Hartnett in Harty action. Picture: Don Moloney/Press 22

His father hurled with Midleton and his uncles Pat, a Cork selector alongside Kieran Kingston, and John were noted for their exploits with the small ball. Hartnett, whose sister recently came back from a knee injury to lift the U21 All-Ireland with the Cork ladies footballers, only took off when he turned 18, partnering his younger brother Niall, the CBC centre-forward in this year's Harty Cup final, at midfield for the Douglas minors.

That led to the club senior coach Mick Evans showing faith in him and encouraged Hartnett to opt for football with the UCC freshers. He's grateful to his parents Michael and Caroline, who still plays football herself as Nemo junior full-back, for getting him to focus on growing his skillset before his physical growth spurt.

"I didn't make any Cork development squads or get trials. I grew about five inches in a year and I got a bit stronger too. My parents always told me to worry about my skills because there are a lot of players are unreal at U14 and they don't even play anymore. 

"A lot of lads in the squad like Eanna O'Hanlon, Michael O'Mahony, Dan O'Connell, had never made a Cork panel. It's like Seamus Harnedy with the Cork hurlers, it's never too late to make it."

He had originally been drawn to hurling not just because of his family connections but because it suited him more as a youngster.

 Brian Hartnett keeps possession as he is challenged by Na Piarsaigh's Conor Bowen and Ciarán Allen at U14. Picture: David Keane.
 Brian Hartnett keeps possession as he is challenged by Na Piarsaigh's Conor Bowen and Ciarán Allen at U14. Picture: David Keane.

"In hurling I was wing-back. In football I played full-back at U14 but after that I wasn't making the team. For the Féile football final against Carrigaline that we lost I was on a ski-holiday and getting updates from my dad.  

"I always preferred hurling. I was very slow back then, not that I'm unbelievably fast now, and I wasn't very strong. The wheel turned when I was 17, fifth year in school. I prefer football now, especially playing around the middle of the pitch, because you can contribute more, bring others into the game. In hurling it can bypass you. 

"Training in the winter is more suited to football when the pitches are heavy. I'd a good run in midfield with Douglas in the senior championship last year and I didn't make the senior hurling team so I decided to try and push on in one code.

"Starting senior with your club you know where you're at and playing freshers you are involved with Kerry players and coming up against the top lads from Dublin and Tyrone and so on. It's a great way to gauge. Aidan Kelleher, the Doc, is over the UCC freshers."

Brian and Niall Hartnett when they were young. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Brian and Niall Hartnett when they were young. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Harnett needed the support of the College, where Liam Jennings and Mark Collins are also selectors, over the winter because the U20 group was left without a manager when Gene O'Driscoll stepped away. Keith Ricken didn't come in until the end of January.

The GDAs, especially James McCarthy, had kept the core of the panel training away on the astro in the Páirc but it meant Cork were a bit behind their rivals in terms of preparation.

"At the start of the year, there was a bit of hassle because we didn't have a manager in. I've good friends from Kerry and they were back before Christmas but once Keith came in it all settled down. He gave everyone in the whole county a go. There were new faces in every week. If you were good enough you stayed around. 

"From the start, he said our goal was to win the All-Ireland and Munster was just a step to get to the All-Ireland series. It wasn't just about beating Kerry and that's why it was so great to come back against Tyrone, especially being seven points down."

Ricken is a serious operator but he's got a quality crew around him as well: Maurice Moore, Pat Spratt, Colm O'Neill and Mícheál Ó Cróinín.

"It was all up in the air but we just kept training ourselves, with the clubs and the colleges, but we haven't looked back since Keith came in. We knew straight away we'd a good manager. He's an air about him that you soak up everything he says. Then he brought in such a good backroom team that you knew you were on to something good.

"Maurice takes the training and Pat's a great motivator. Colm and Mícheál have fantastic knowledge and they're big into using your bad leg in drills. Keith makes it very simple, if you put in the right ingredients you're going to get the right meal. We put in the hard work, the graft, and then we can play the football we want to play."

The John Kerins League was used to try out various combinations and build confidence.

"We got some great games with the best teams in the country and we could see how we fared with them. Every game was within two points so we knew what we had then and that was without playing any Leaving Certs. We still used 28 players in good competitive matches and we got great crowds watching us in Clonakilty."

Hartnett, who cites David Moran and Brian Fenton as the two modern midfielders he aspires to emulate, agrees the current feelgood factor in Cork football has given the U20s added motivation. The newfound self-belief helped Cork turn around a seven-point deficit in the semi-final against Tyrone.

"When we shortened the gap the hum started rising from the crowd and every turnover and every score the crowd just got louder and louder. It inspired us. The crowd makes a massive difference and we're hoping with a double-header that the hurling faithful will stay on and support us and Portlaoise will be a big sea of red. 

"Some of the injuries I had after were from people patting me on the back! It was great seeing the emotion and smiles on the faces, from the parents and families and friends who supported us throughout. Hopefully we can actually bring back some All-Ireland silverware to Cork now."

He's well aware of the challenge Dublin will pose, particularly lethal attacker Ciarán Archer.

"Archer is obviously a serious talent in the full-forward line. They're a big strong physical team and they drew with us in the league even though they'd two men sent off." 

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