WITH the clocks set to go forward at the end of this week, hurling folk are eager to step back inside the gates of their playing fields.
Picture the scene: The freshly mown grass, the later sunset, and the sliotars flying between the uprights.
Like all mentors, Fr O’Neill’s new manager, Robbie Dalton, is ready to oversee his first session of the calendar year. The new man in charge just can’t wait to get started.
“Being honest, I did not have to think too long about it when an approach was made at the end of last season,” Dalton said. “The management team that were involved over the past few years stepped down, after doing a great job, and I got the call.
“Luke Swayne and Micháel Broderick, who were with me previously, as part of the 2018 U21 management team, were also available to become involved, along with Quentin Higgins.
“Our coach from last year, Sean Prendergast, also agreed to stay on board, which was a great boost.
“His enthusiasm is unreal: He really gets stuck in from the start of every session.”
Dalton’s familiarity with the players, including his son Cork hurler Declan Dalton, was a key reason for his instant response to taking over the managerial reigns.
Looking back, I suppose, I have worked with most of these players since they were at U10 level.
“From my first meeting, they looked like a very talented group. In fairness, they have never left the club down, as they progressed along the age groups, competing with the likes of Blackrock and Sarsfield’s, with whom we had fierce battles.
“Although, as a management team, we were not involved at minor level, we were back in charge again when that group graduated to U21 level and, obviously, that was an unbelievable feeling, being crowned Premier U21 champions.”
Not all teams transfer underage success to adult silverware, but this Fr O’Neill’s cohort have seldom been sidetracked as they grew from boys to men.
Dalton feels there is a togetherness about the players that is rare.
“They always stayed united and had very few distractions,” Dalton said. “They have all been friends for a long time and the other key factor is that none of them actually went abroad for a few years, which might have been a factor in the past.
They are a group of players who don’t like being beaten and will always try to react if they suffer a bad result along the way.
“Overall, from dealings with the group, I just could not speak highly enough of them.”
There are also still a few players that Robbie worked with as coach with O’Neill’s in 2011, when, under his stewardship and that of Noel O’Driscoll and Maurice Conway, the team reached the county final, only to lose to Bandon.
Injuries have played a part in the O’Neill’s camp in the last championship season, with a few high-profile absentees — however, the current news bulletin looks positive.
“Ger Millerick is training and is in good shape,” said Dalton.
The manager also looks set to be able to include both Daniel Harrington and Cal Hegarty in his early summer plans.
“Daniel is making considerable progress, having missed the latter stages of the last year, whilst Cal is recovering well from his cruciate injury, which is another positive.
“There are also a number of good young players coming up along the ranks that, hopefully, we will be able to bring along.”
Reflections on last year’s championship tell us that after suffering that heartbreaking, solitary point defeat in the All-Ireland intermediate final in January, Fr O’Neill’s were impressive in another county campaign, which saw them go the full distance.
They reached another decider, but unlike 12 months previously, when they overcame Kilworth, emotions were much different, as their old rivals, Charleville, edged out the East Cork side after a titanic conclusion to the senior ‘A’ grade.
The imaginary shortlist of contenders that most hurling fans carry around in the back pocket will have Fr O’Neill’s as the main threat.
Exploits of those recent seasons speak for themselves and the pressure of expectation goes hand in hand with the hurling management role.
But Robbie Dalton urges caution.
“There are a lot of good teams there — a lot of teams who want to make a big impression — so there is a lot of hard work to do for us,” Dalton said.
“At the moment, we are just looking forward to getting out on the pitch. We don’t know what format the league will take, so we’ll just try to set up challenge games in advance of the championship.”
And a word about Dalton’s free-scoring son, Declan, who has amassed such a catalogue of stunning scores in recent years.
“Declan is putting in a pile of work and I don’t think I have ever seen him as fit as during this lockdown,” Dalton said. “I spoke to him when I was approached about becoming manager and he gave me his blessing: He was happy for me to get involved.
“Last year, he broke through with the county team, so, hopefully, this year, he will continue to nail down a place.”
All in all, 2021 could be an exciting season for the Dalton household.