EIGHT minutes into Saturday’s Fitzgibbon Cup final in Mallow, UCC’s Mark Kehoe picked up a ball about 30 metres from the Mary Immaculate College goal, not far from the sideline.
After carrying the ball infield, where his marker Seamus Downey was still inside him, Kehoe feigned to strike the ball over the bar, before playing it back on his hurley and cutting straight down the central attacking channel.
As Eoghan Ryan came to meet him, Kehoe flicked the ball, one-handed, over his head. The sliotar went to ground but Kehoe picked it up and kept going as three Mary I defenders chased him down.
Philip Hickey tried to pull him to the ground but Kehoe stayed on his feet and as Mark Prendergast tried to block his path, Kehoe still got the shot off and the sliotar went past goalkeeper Eoghan Cahill.
UCC never looked back after such a brilliant score as they cantered to the title.
The goal was created and finished by a Tipperary player. Kehoe, who hit 1-4 from play, and Kerry’s Shane Conway were central to UCC’s success but this Fitzgibbon title was still heavily manufactured in Cork.
Eleven Cork players featured in Saturday’s final while two more Cork players played a part in UCC’s epic semi-final win against DCU. Eight of those 13 players are on the Cork senior panel; Eoghan Murphy, David Griffin, David Lowney, Mark Coleman, Shane Kingston, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Robbie O’Flynn and Michael O’Halloran.
Along with DCU, UCC were the outstanding team in the competition. They showed that from their opening day performance in Limerick but the manner in how they won this Fitzgibbon was even more pleasing considering the injuries they had to key Cork players along the way.
O’Flynn, who came on in the final, hadn’t played since picking up an ankle injury in the college’s opening group game against UL. Eoghan Murphy has had an issue with his shoulder, while Mark Coleman carried an injury into the DCU game.
After being carried off late on in Charleville’s All-Ireland Intermediate semi-final against Graigue-Ballycallan in January, Darragh Fitzgibbon’s injury hampered him in the final against Oranmore and UCC were only able to spring Fitzgibbon off the bench two days later against DCU.
Fitzgibbon played again on Saturday but he probably needs a rest now to allow his body to fully heal for the big tests ahead with Cork.
Yet all those players found a way to get through those setbacks and get the job done for UCC.
One of the biggest pluses was the outstanding form of Shane Kingston.
When UCC were under huge pressure against DCU, especially in the first half, Kingston led the charge. He ended that match with 1-5 from play.
That tally was even more impressive considering whose company he was keeping during the match; after starting on Kilkenny’s Conor Delaney, Paddy Smyth and Eoghan O’Donnell – two Dublin seniors – also tried to tie Kingston down.
Playing him at centre-forward gave him more freedom and responsibility and Kingston fully embraced the challenge.
With the devastating manner of the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Limerick, and the U21 final loss to Tipperary, especially for Kingston when he was captain, this Fitzgibbon campaign has been highly restorative for him and other members of that side.
It has given them an opportunity to recharge and go again.
Darragh Fitzgibbon was tied up with Charleville for most of the Fitzgibbon Cup but Saturday’s win was some form of atonement for the disappointments of the last six months.
His former Cork U21 team-mates were also able to bask in that satisfaction; David Griffin, Niall O’Leary and Eoghan Murphy also played in last year’s All-Ireland U21 final defeat, alongside Kingston, Coleman, Fitzgibbon and O’Flynn.
Chris O’Leary has clearly been driven by losing his place on that team after the Munster semi-final and not getting game-time in that All-Ireland U21 final.
O’Leary was outstanding for UCC this season. So was Niall O’Leary, who also had his own motivation after last August.
He was turned over in possession for the crucial third Tipperary goal in that U21 final but O’Leary impressively bounced back.
No other Cork player though, was surely more pumped to win a Fitzgibbon than Kingston. He does have two Munster senior medals but Kingston has tasted bitter defeat in Munster and All-Ireland U21 finals, a Harty final and a Corn Uí Mhuirí final.
So what must a Fitzgibbon Cup medal mean to him now?
Despite the importance of the Fitzgibbon Cup in the development and maturation of young players, the timing of the competition has deemed it a total nuisance in the eyes of many inter-county managers.
The championship is so intense that many of those managers want all their players available for every session in order to calibrate their teams correctly for the summer. And that often means cutting Fitzgibbon players minimal slack.
Many managers see no value in a Fitzgibbon Cup title but Limerick certainly did last year.
A host of players on the UL team went to John Kiely and said that they wanted to win a Fitzgibbon, and that they needed him to try and facilitate as much by giving them more leeway than Kiely granted the college players in 2017. Kiely did. Tom Morrissey, Seán Finn, Gearóid Hegarty, Barry Murphy, Mikey Casey and Pat Ryan won Fitzgibbon medals and the feel-good factor was certainly felt in the panel when they returned.
It may be a different time now to when Cork and UCC were gobbling up All-Irelands and Fitzgibbons for fun but the successful correlation didn’t do Cork any harm back then.
And another Fitzgibbon title now for UCC could yet be beneficial to Cork in 2019.