FOR John Dwyer the big one wasn’t the final in Thurles.
As special as it was to perform so well against Clare and soak up the plaudits from the raucous Cork crowd after, they had to get there first. It was the fourth year of Denis Ring’s minor management, Dwyer’s third as coach and fourth as selector, and they’d fallen at the semi-final hurdle every time.
Winning a Munster title on the same day as the seniors will live long in the memory, but they’d to park the hard luck stories to set up what turned into that magical day at Semple Stadium.
They did it the hard way. Hurling in fits and starts away to Tipp until an Evan Sheehan free with the last puck of the drawn semi-final set up a replay at Páirc Uí Rinn. A huge attendance of 8,142 (officially, it felt like more) thronged the venue and Cork rose to the pressure of bridging a nine-year gap with a victory.
For Dwyer and the rest of the management team, the ecstatic scenes on the full-time whistle reflected one simple emotion. Relief. The joy came after.
“Tipperary have a ferocious team. That’s what we were targeting all year.
“Evan saved us. I never felt panicky but we missed three great chances in extra time and then I looked up at the scoreboard, we’re a goal down, and thought ‘here we go again’. For Evan to do what he did, when he didn’t go that well in the game… fair play.
“We actually had our plan for the replay in the bus on the way home. Ger Mellerick went out on (Paddy) Cadell and did an unreal job. He’s probably the unsung hero of the day for shutting down the opposition’s main man. He freed up Daire Connery and we were able to catch them with a few goals early on.”
The crackling atmosphere inspired the young players. Of that Dwyer is certain.
“The Cork support was unreal, absolutely unbelievable. There was big crowd up in Thurles for the first semi-final, but for the replay it felt like the crowd were going to spill onto the pitch. Ger Lane said afterwards it was the best atmosphere he’d ever seen at Páirc Uí Rinn, in any game.”
It was the same come the Munster final. They were told afterwards that 25,000 were in Semple for the throw-in and 32,000 by the start of the second half. The bulk of them Cork fans. Previously unheard of for a minor final.
“Fair enough we’re hurling well but the biggest kick we’re getting, as management and players, is that every man, woman and child in every club in Cork is with us. They’re really playing a part. It’s worth four or five points to us and I hope they can go in early for the semi-final.”
Even before captain Seán O’Leary Hayes led the players up the steps to collect the canister, they couldn’t wait to bring it down to the red masses on the Town End Terrace. Yet the stand-out moment came in the tunnel – captured by RedFM – when the young guns gave the seniors a guard of honour onto the field.
“Selector Liam Martin, Derek Connolly and Jerry Walsh, who are in the backroom, said it was the right thing to do. Even though our young fellas were jumping around the place they quietened down, because there was a few minutes left and the seniors were still having their talk in the dressing room, and then we roared them on.”
For Dwyer, it shows the connection that has evolved between all the teams.
“We’ve a great working relationship with the U21s and it’s about all three groups doing it for the betterment of Cork hurling. The senior management are amazing. They’re real Cork hurling people and they put their heads on the block picking all those young fellas at the start of the year.”
On the morning of the Munster final, Kieran Kingston contacted Denis Ring to make sure the minors didn’t depart Holycross-Ballycahill until the seniors arrived and wished them luck. All part of the new culture.
Now the next step is Jones Road against Dublin. Like the provincial decider, it’ll be about playing “the game not the occasion”. It was a lesson JBM passed on to Dwyer when he was a minor himself in 1995 on a team featuring Joe Deane, Donal Óg Cusack and co, beat Kilkenny and Galway to capture the All-Ireland.
“I remember getting the advice from Jimmy Barry-Murphy as a minor: ‘play the game and you’ll enjoy the occasion for the rest of your life after, you’ll never forget it’. You get a medal in your back pocket and nobody can take it away from you.”
Some time has passed since the Ballincollig club man was a Cork minor and U21 and the game has evolved. Cork have a serious set-up, from Ring and Dwyer, to selectors Liam Martin, John Mortell and Fergus Ryan – “all great coaches too” – Stephen Casey in strength and conditioning and a vast backroom.
Yet the core tenants of the best of Cork hurling remain.
“You concentrate on doing your job and you work for the fella next to you. That’s our mantra. Jimmy and Tom Cashman did most of the coaching back in 1995 and sure they were heroes to us, we just worshiped them.
“The game-plan side of it wasn’t there – for us it was hit Joe Deane early and often! And the game has gone way quicker but it’s still hurling. ‘I’ve to be positive on the ball when I have it and do everything in my power to get it back when I don’t.’ You work as hard as you can in packs.”
Dwyer, who is a schools coach in the Collig and whose brother Danny is the club’s intermediate manager, couldn’t praise the players enough for their willingness to learn. Referee Nathan Wall was in after a recent challenge against Imokilly talking about tackling and was blown away by the group’s attentiveness and enthusiasm.
“The learning curve of playing in Croke Park will be huge for these lads before they go onto U21 and senior. Dublin only lost by four points to Kilkenny. People who saw us in the Munster final didn’t see us struggling in the first game against Tipp, we’ve to have our homework done against Dublin and playing at our ability to beat them.
“We’ve our own little routine as a group when we go out onto the field. We take in our surroundings but then we don’t worry, we play the game inside the white lines.”
We can expect to see Dwyer cover a couple of miles inside and outside those lines communicating with the players on Sunday.
“I remember when I played, you make a mistake on the far side of the pitch and you feel a small bit lonely. Fellas would be laughing at me running around the pitch but I think it’s important to go over and say ‘next ball, go again’ after a mistake. They’re only kids.
“Some lads might think I’m an eejit for going back and forth on the pitch, but I believe it matters when you go over a say ‘drive on, we’re behind you’.
“The lads are comfortable with us as people. We want them to develop as people too. In the programme (against Tipp) James Keating was joking about wanting to get me a new van. You want them to enjoy it, to be able to have a bit of craic because they can still tune in when it’s needed, they’ll still listen when it’s time, and then they’re freer to hurl.”
Whatever happens this weekend Dwyer is convinced Cork hurling is on the right track.
“They’re all steps. Cork getting teams to Harty Cup finals, that’s important. Cork winning the Munster Senior Hurling League… that meant something. The Glen getting to the Munster final, that was a lift.
“The seniors have been so good and so positive it has risen everybody. That’s Cork hurling.
“It has to be about a collective effort, between minors, U21s, seniors. If you’re involved in your U12 team in a club you’re part of it. The supporters coming in to watch us might only think they’re going to a game but they’re actually giving something special to those young fellas.
“The cockiness is back but isn’t that great. I read a few lines after the Tipp win: ‘There will always be hurling. There will always be Cork’. The chest comes out when you read that.
“Other counties might think we’re arrogant but we just believe in ourselves when we’re going well. For us the faster we hurl the better we hurl and that’s the Cork way.”