Colm O'Neill: In all my days playing with Cork I'd never seen an atmosphere like the U20 All-Ireland football final

Colm O'Neill: In all my days playing with Cork I'd never seen an atmosphere like the U20 All-Ireland football final
Cork supporters celebrate after defeating Dublin. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

COLM O'Neill has a medal collection as good as any modern Cork footballer.

He was an U21 All-Ireland winner in 2007 and 2009, got his hands on Sam Maguire in 2010, an U21 hurling bauble among his Munster medals and added a Sigerson Cup with CIT – when U20 manager Keith Ricken was also at the helm.

Yet O'Neill reckoned the noise and buzz in Portlaoise on Saturday afternoon was as intoxicating as any he'd experienced.

“In all my days playing with Cork, I'd never seen an atmosphere like that. Even the roar the lads got going in at half-time meant they were going in at half-time with a real pep in their step. They still have to go out and finish it off but that group of players it was something they'll never forget.

“I must say it's the next best thing to playing. Of course, you'd love to be still out there but it's great to think you're helping Cork football. From 2007 to 2009 we won a few U21 All-Ireland and you saw what that did for Cork football and hopefully we can get the same out of this, especially with the minors going well too.” 

Cork selector Colm O'Neill with nephew Cillian Browne. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Cork selector Colm O'Neill with nephew Cillian Browne. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

O'Neill, only 29 this year, was recruited by Ricken as a selector after his career was cut short through injury. It's been quite an experience for the Ballyclough native, who still plays in goal for his club at junior A level and was in championship action last Friday night.

“To be fair nobody could have predicted the rise of this time since we got together first about six months ago.

“For a lot, if not all of them, it was their first All-Ireland so obviously nerves were going to come into, no matter how well you prepare for them. They've shown all year that they can stick to the process, as boring and all as that sounds, and they figure it out themselves because there's only so much you can do from the line. You can make switches but the players have to get it motoring.

“The wind was an issue but the few goals made a massive difference.” O'Neill sees no reason the marquee forwards in Rebel red in Portlaoise can't push on to Ronan McCarthy's senior squad.

“Ronan will be looking at some of them, five or six, to breakthrough in the senior panel next year and why not, they're good enough to, even seven or eight of them.

“The exhibition the forwards put on was incredible. Cathal got Man of the Match but Mark Cronin was just as good, Damien Gore in the second half had his best ever game for Cork and they've been doing that all year. Real exciting talent, which was always there.” 

Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Picture: Eddie O'Hare

He felt Cork's season ignited with the draw with Kerry in the John Kerin's Development League.

“In fairness to Keith, Maurice Moore the coach and everyone involved it was just about training hard and trying to give them some sound advice.

“A real turning point was the draw in the league game against Kerry down in Clon. We knew we were good but that was the first test in a competitive match of what we had and Kerry were probably lucky to draw it. After that, we knew we'd something special.

“We didn't hide anything in the John Kerins, apart from not using the lads caught with the Leaving Cert. Everyone talks about competition for places but our bench won the game against Tyrone.” 

O'Neill feels Ricken deserves all the kudos for landing a first football All-Ireland for Cork in nine years.

“I'm delighted for Keith because he never stops working. Emails at 6am about football and what he's done for young players every since I was in CIT is just astonishing really.

“He's not just about skills development and winning matches, it's about developing people as well as players and he's done that for these lads.”

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