KEITH Ricken told a story during the week about taking his young fella to Cork U20 training all year so he could pick up something of the character and spirit from a group of role models; Ricken junior has some story to tell after what's turned into the most remarkable summer for Cork football.
Imagine, for starters, the game you’ve been aiming towards all year on the biggest stage and after barely 12 minutes you’ve coughed up 1-6 (including a horror of a soft goal), almost every player on the team has committed some nervy handling error, you’re playing into the wind where you can’t get a hand on any your own restarts and your opponents (Dublin of all teams) look stronger, faster, machine-like in ball-winning and physicality.
Teams have collapsed under a lot less difficult circumstances. This group is different though and they’re going about changing what it is to be a Cork football team, where any flakiness has gone and where now people are talking about pride and positivity and aggression. This is a Cork team down nine points to Dublin in an All-Ireland final and who then produces the gutsiest, most thrilling 45 minutes of high-tempo attacking football we’ve seen for some time.
This is Cork football now.
The game shifted with individual plays and moments that stood out. Blake Murphy made the hard run and finish for that game-changing first goal, ran the ball for the point that followed and was just an influence at a time Cork desperately needed one – he kicked two wonderful technically brilliant points as well.
Mark Cronin ran at his man for that first goal, showed all his goal-poaching brilliance for that swivel and turn for the second, kicked some huge points and gave one lovely cross-field pass to set up a Damien Gore point in the first half.
Cathal O’Mahony realised he needed to influence the game, drifted deep to link play first half, gave the final pass for five points from play and still curled a beauty from play into the wind along with a few belters from frees. Mostly it wasn’t pretty or flowing but just doing the little things with responsibility in the right way and redemption came for everyone too.
Josh O’Keeffe turned around that opening quarter with a huge catch that led to a Cork score and a nerveless, brave kick-out display once he settled down. Colm O’Callaghan missed two shots early but came back to score the third goal and at the end of the first half was working back, winning turnovers.
That full-back line that looked shaky for 10 minutes got on top more or less completely and all drove out to win possession. Paul Ring especially played a load of ball. One collective turnover early in the second half drew a massive wonderful roar of defiance from the crowd.
A midfield that seemed to be outmatched early on kept on working, winning ball and moving ball and eventually got completely on top. That third goal came from a Brian Hartnett and Daniel O’Connell combination run down the middle.
Hartnett never stopped showing and linking play; O’Connell caught a few huge kick-outs and tore down the middle for a great score and a few big assists. At one stage in the first half Sean Meehan carried a ball 50 metres up the pitch at a time nobody else seemed of a mind to do so, a small moment that indicated Cork weren’t going to go away; he did the same later in the half, jinking around a tackle to set up Cathal O’Mahony’s point.
It had just the right mix of bravery, of doing the right thing with conviction and confidence and yes, quality as well, that defines this Cork U20 group.
They’re All-Ireland champions, and as importantly, they’ve shown what’s possible for Cork football with belief and ambition.