Brian Corcoran's brilliance at U14 helped establish the mystique of the Imokilly division

Brian Corcoran's brilliance at U14 helped establish the mystique of the Imokilly division
Brian Corcoran going past Kilkenny captain Liam Fennelly.

OUTSIDE of Cork, the first time the wider hurling public ever really heard of Imokilly was about 30 years ago, when the Munster Council decided to run a Munster U16 Divisional Competition in the 1980s.

Most divisional teams had a clearly defined map of identity – North Tipperary, Mid-Clare, East Waterford, Limerick City – but Imokilly had that ring of mystique and mystery to its name. There were other Cork teams in the Munster U16 competition but Imokilly always seemed the strongest, especially in the early days when they reached a couple of finals.

The East Cork division provided the home club of the most famous hurler of all — Christy Ring — but in the late 1980s, Imokilly mostly became associated, especially for hurling fanatics, with one name – Brian Corcoran.

Stories of his immense potential first travelled beyond Cork in 1987 when Corcoran scored 6-5 from play, from midfield, in the East Cork U14 final against Midleton. Corcoran was still under 15 when he played in the 1988 All-Ireland minor final against Kilkenny (at midfield) and the All-Ireland Colleges final for Midleton CBS against St Kieran’s.

A year later, Corcoran was still lining out for the Imokilly U16 Divisional side which were well beaten in the Munster final by North Tipperary.

Yet while much of Imokilly’s identity was bound up with Corcoran around that time, by extension, so was Midleton CBS. That underlined just how big Corcoran’s name was because the CBS’ strongest ever period (1986-’88) — which is probably marginally ahead of the 1994-95 sides — largely came before Corcoran’s time. He only featured on the 1988 Harty side.

For outsiders with a keen interest in Cork hurling, Corcoran largely connected the two places — Imokilly and Midleton CBS — but Midleton, the club, had already forged their own name by then outside of Cork. Having finally made the senior breakthrough in 1983, they went on to win three more titles over the next eight years, winning an All-Ireland club title in 1988.

The Midleton CBS team that won the 1995 Harty included Donal Óg, Joe Deane, Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Mickey O'Connell.
The Midleton CBS team that won the 1995 Harty included Donal Óg, Joe Deane, Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Mickey O'Connell.

Midleton were huge trailblazers, not just in Cork, but particularly in Imokilly. Despite East Cork being renowned as a hurling heartland for so long, it’s difficult to believe that, in the first 96 years of the senior championship, only eight titles came to the division. East Cork clubs had regularly reached county finals — Imokilly also contested finals in 1949 and 1968 — but they just couldn’t break the dominance of the three city clubs — Blackrock, St Finbarr’s and Glen Rovers.

Conor Lehane delivered for Midleton in 2013. Picture: INPHO
Conor Lehane delivered for Midleton in 2013. Picture: INPHO

Yet when Midleton broke through, they absolutely smashed the cartel and ignited a huge culture change in the 1990s. Na Piarsaigh won their first county title in 1990. Corcoran’s Erin’s Own secured their maiden title two years later.

And Imokilly finally won a first county title in 1997, before retaining it in 1998.

Sars' Teddy McCarthy battles Imokilly midfielder Mick Daly in 1998. Picture: Des Barry
Sars' Teddy McCarthy battles Imokilly midfielder Mick Daly in 1998. Picture: Des Barry

Despite the perceived strength of the Divisional teams — Imokilly have 19 clubs to choose from — the fact that only seven county titles have been won by divisional teams underlines just how difficult it is to forge a cohesive unit together from so many different clubs and backgrounds. Although there have been nine different winners in the last 20 years, Imokilly’s success last year bridged a 19-year gap for them, and a divisional side.

This group now has Imokilly’s strongest team in 20 years. They are seeking to do what that last great team achieved in 1997 and 1998 but this would be the sweetest county title those players could ever win – because it would be against Midleton.

There have been big divisional derby finals in the past; Imokilly-Sarsfields in 1997; the 2006 final between Erin’s Own and Cloyne; Midleton and Sars in 2013.

That 1997 final was the only time a divisional side played a side from within their own division in a final but, while Sars may be in Imokilly, its strategic location so close to the city was never going to create the kind of local intensity and passion that will make Sunday’s decider one of the most unique final face-offs in the history of the Cork championship. Because this is a battle between the heartland within the heartland.

Some of the clubs in the north of the division would be more closely connected to Fermoy but for people within east Cork, Midleton is their town. It is where they went to school, or they go to school. Located 17 miles from Cork city, and 16 miles from Youghal, Midleton is a big bustling market town, where the majority of east Cork people shop and do most of their business.

And while beating Midleton would give them huge satisfaction, the locals in black and white would love nothing more than to beat Imokilly in a decider.

Midleton’s five titles over the last 35 years were won against the Barrs, the Glen, the Rockies and Sars but a win on Sunday would provide a whole new level of modern satisfaction.

On paper, Imokilly look better. A star-studded team is even stronger than last year with the additions of Colm Spillane, Bill Cooper and Shane Hegarty. Declan Dalton and Ger Mellerick can’t even make the starting 15. In the semi-final, Imokilly took a highly vaunted UCC team apart.

Ger Millerick, Seamus Harnedy, Paudie O'Sullivan and Brian Lawton, Imokilly. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Ger Millerick, Seamus Harnedy, Paudie O'Sullivan and Brian Lawton, Imokilly. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

Imokilly may just be too strong but Midleton certainly won’t see it that way. They will feel superior. They will think superior to their opponents. Middleton players won’t see county names in the other corner — they will see players from smaller clubs. They’ll also know that the UCC match was effectively a challenge game for Imokilly because UCC switched off when the game went away from them.

Midleton have won their last three matches by a combined margin of just four points, which will be huge for their confidence. They have talented, pacy forwards, along with a match-winner in Conor Lehane.

The Cork senior final is always a special occasion in Cork GAA but Sunday’s decider will be a magical occasion for east Cork. And the winners will secure the most precious county title they could ever win.

Jimmy Smiddy, Imokilly catches the ball from Ian Kelleher, Newtown, in 1999. Picture: Maurice O'Mahony
Jimmy Smiddy, Imokilly catches the ball from Ian Kelleher, Newtown, in 1999. Picture: Maurice O'Mahony

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