AT the end of the All-Ireland minor final on Sunday, the Cork players gathered together in the centre of Croke Park, arms wrapped around each other in a small C shape across the middle of the field.
Devastation was written across their faces. Shoulders were slumped. Heads were down.
Cork had come to win. Deep down, they expected to win.
Losing an All-Ireland final is always difficult to accept but the biggest disappointment that the group were surely feeling at that point was knowing that they didn’t play well enough, that they never performed to the level they are capable of.
Was that down to a lack of freshness compared to Galway? That was always a possibility with Cork already having had a long season, and with Galway only beginning their championship campaign in late July.
Cork had created a great early platform but they couldn’t sustain it. Galway didn’t score for the last 15 minutes (including injury-time), but Cork could only shave three points off a five-point deficit down the stretch.
In the end, Galway created more scoring chances (29-26). And yet, Cork still could have won the match. Cork’s disallowed goal in the 40th minute was a decisive moment in the match. Craig Hanifin also had a goal chance with one minute of normal time to play but he was smothered by some solid Galway defending.
The disappointment for Cork will be exacerbated because, while they showed their real class at various stages of the game, they didn’t display that class as often as they would have liked. It was only on show in sporadic bursts.
Cork’s second goal from Evan Sheehan began with an exceptional play from Conor O’Callaghan, who carried the ball up through the middle of the field before his shot for a point dropped short into goalkeeper Darach Fahy. When Fahy tried to place his clearance, Liam O'Shea picked him off before playing the ball into Sheehan, who buried it from an acute angle.
Cork’s next score was a beautiful point from Daire Connery. From the puck-out, Connery was back in the half-back line winning possession before playing a perfect crossfield ball to Hanafin, who passed to O’Shea, who arrowed an even better crossfield ball into Brian Turnbull, to score a class point. That score put 2-5 to 0-5 up but it was more than just the six-point lead – the execution showed how Cork were capable of opening up the Galway defence when they played to their full potential.
Cork just weren’t doing it consistently enough. That was down to Galway too but it was clear from the third quarter that Cork were going to be under pressure to hold out. Galway had momentum. The huge Galway crowd was in full voice to provide the confidence to drive them home.
Cork were still ahead by one point in the 38th minute but Jack Canning won the puck-out to land the equaliser before Canning then turned the game on its head with his second goal. When the Cork goal was disallowed shortly afterwards, Cork were always going to be chasing frantically.
It is hard to look too far into the future and say that Cork are going to get a huge return from this group. However, there is enough potential and class in this team to suggest that a number of them will be senior hurlers within the next two years.
The Cork senior team need to fill at least three or four positions in 2018 to make Cork a better side, one that can go closer to winning an All-Ireland. Cork need five or six of these minors to take that step up but Cork will have to work with what they have for the time being because none of these minors will probably be in a position to hurl senior in 2018.
The vast majority of the group, even those who will be 19, are studying for their Leaving Certificate in 2018, which would rule them out of being realistic contenders to nail down a starting place for next year’s championship.
The route the current senior management will take should be similar to how they operated with Shane Kingston, Mark Colman and Darragh Fitzgibbon; invite them into the squad, get them on strength and conditioning programmes, let them focus on the U21s, but haul them in full-time after the Leaving Certificate is over, and them drip-feed them with some game-time in the championship, if the need or the opportunity arises.
Management may even decide to bring some of the best players in for the Munster League in January, just to give them a taste of senior action, and see if one or two might be able to play a couple of league games. Sean O’Leary Hayes is the one player who looks capable of playing league and championship next season but Brian Turnbull also has that capacity if he can bulk up more over the winter.
O’Leary Hayes, Turnbull and Daire Connery look like the blue-chip talent that will make the grade but anything up to eight or nine more of these players may be given a shot over the next few years. Some of those players are still U17, which means they won’t be doing their Leaving Cert until 2019.
Yet with no minor championship from next season on, someone like Connery, who won’t be doing his Leaving Cert, could be training with the senior team over the summer, as a means of slowly inveigling him into a squad which he looks certain to make anyway. On the other hand, management will be careful too in not risking burnout of a group which will be central to Cork hurling going forward.
At the end on Sunday, there was surely a deep sense of sadness amongst the Cork players. This group had won everything since U14. They expected to crown that journey with an All-Ireland minor title.
Yet there are enough good players in this squad to ensure that Sunday was not a finishing point, and that it can yet prove to be a key starting point for them, and for Cork hurling.