WHAT a day in Portlaoise on Saturday.
The place was buzzing from mid-morning with Cork supporters enjoying the build-up around town. Obviously, there was great interest in what was about to unfold in O’Moore Park and thankfully the scheduling allowed fans to see the two fixtures.
The massive vocal support was Cork’s 16th man. A magnificent day for the Rebel army, needless to say they had plenty to chat about on the journey home.
Having fully recovered from the devastating Munster final defeat to Tipperary, the Cork U20 hurlers set the mood showing plenty of hunger, while also denying Kilkenny in their quest for a hat-trick of All Ireland titles.
The intriguing part of any game these days is the match-ups. In this case, the big question was who would pick up Kilkenny danger man Adrian Mullen.
He didn’t play in the Leinster decider because of Kilkenny’s participation in the All Ireland senior semi-final in which he scored four points. It was no surprise to see Ger Millerick get the job.
The All-Ireland club medallist with Ballyhale Shamrocks was kept scoreless; Millerick doing what he does best. It helped that he was surrounded by five able colleagues.
Kilkenny’s overall return of six points from play tells its own story — one in the second half and this was in the first minute. A herculean defensive effort that frustrated their opponents.
Then again, looking back over the four matches to date, the only slip up this resolute six have made were the goals conceded to Tipperary. A clean sheet was kept against Limerick, Clare and now Kilkenny. Relentless defending where the likes of Conor O’Callaghan and Eoin Roche have established themselves among a talented group.
Running the show at the other end was Tommy O’Connell who had the perfect day. The wing-forward was fully deserving of his TG4 Man of the Match award. He opened the scoring in the first minute and he signed off with the final score a minute from time.
His significant 1-10 tally was made up of white flags and a green flag. From open play and from the dead ball. He took over the free-taking duties and did his job well. His brilliant goal as a result of much hard work, the sliotar deflected over the line by Kilkenny goalkeeper Dean Mason.
O’Connell was modest too.
“It was a team effort. We are just delighted to get the win and be back in another All-Ireland final where Cork should be. We will go again. Everyone does their job on the pitch.
“The boys drive it up from defence and it was a lucky break for me and I was just happy to get the goal in the end. Everyone has a job and we all do it.
“You can’t give Kilkenny an inch. We were delighted to stay level-headed and do the job. That is something Denis (Ring) and the boys work on, constantly keeping us level-headed no matter what goes on. We all believe in each other and we all trust each other.
“We had a chat in the dressing-room after the Munster final. You want to win every game. But, look, we said we would drive on again and try and put on a serious performance.”
O’Connell’s goal midway through the first half was a tonic score. It enabled Cork to gain a foothold. They needed it because Kilkenny came back at them before the interval. Nonetheless, Cork turned with the wind at their backs to come, and with a one-point margin in their favour.
The Cats moved one ahead shortly after the restart, but that was as good as it got for them. Cork closing out emphatically, the same wholehearted attitude they displayed against Limerick and Clare.
So, the red and white march on to their next assignment. The aim will be to bridge the 21-year gap since the silverware last came Leeside. Realistically this task represents a huge challenge.
From last year’s unsuccessful team, Ger Collins, Brian Turnbull and Millerick remain.
We know Cork have a very good back line. There are options at midfield. Daire Connery, Ryan Walsh, Brian Roche and O’Connell among those who have filled the positions.
Many serious players have put their hand up in the Cork attack. The picture is different every day they go out with a spread of scorers.
Shane O’Regan was the star against Limerick. Turnbull, Sean Twomey and O’Connell stood up in the Clare win while Evan Sheehan and Twomey bagged goals in the provincial decider.
Declan Hanlon, Simon Kennefick, Liam O’Shea, Barry Murphy, Craig Hanifin and Padraig Power playing influential roles as well.
The aim after last year’s final loss was to get back to the big stage again. The pain and hurt of being so agonizingly close that time should drive Cork on. The clinching goal in both the 2019 Munster final and the 2018 All-Ireland final didn’t arrive until deep in stoppage time.
They won’t be lacking in motivation.