FOR the first time since 2017, Imokilly are not starting a year as county senior hurling champions but the East Cork divisional side are keen to get back to the top of the tree.
A late UCC surge in last year’s divisions/colleges section brought Imokilly’s three-year reign to an end after winning the previous three titles. However, manager Ciarán Cronin is looking forward to the commencement of the 2021 championship now that teams are allowed to gather for training again.
“We had two or three Zoom calls earlier in the year, just to touch base and get to know the couple of new faces on the panel,” he says.
“We actually trained for the first time last Monday night and we had nearly 30 players there. There’s good commitment in fairness to the lads, there’s a good cohort there with the last five years or so.
“A lot of them are heading towards 27, 28, 29, 30. Bill [Cooper] and Brian Lawton would be 33/34, they’re the oldest, then you’re down to Séamie [Harnedy] and John Cronin. This year, we’ve freshened up the panel a bit, we’ve a few 20-year-olds who are good enough to be given a shot at it and you have to keep integrating new fellas.
“There has been a good buy-in. Obviously, it was disappointing last year but it was so tough to get going – it was hard to get challenge games and then the clubs were in action too. It just didn’t work out and we lost Séamie on the night as well.
“Still, UCC were good and they actually got stronger after our match. We had three good years and lads are definitely keen to get back at it this year.”
After 2019, Imokilly manager Fergal Condon and coach Derek Barrett stepped away and Lisgoold native Cronin stepped up from selector to manager. Had they emerged into the championship proper, they may have contended again, but Cronin knows what a bearpit the divisions/colleges part of the competition can be.
“These divisional games are always such a banana skin and that’s the way we’d treat them,” he says.
“Previously, we used to be playing them in March or April and we used to hate those matches against Muskerry, Avondhu, Duhallow, Carbery – you just don’t know what’s going to happen.
“We didn’t know who UCC were going to have that night because there were so many clubs feeding into it and then we were similar, we had one or two injuries from lads playing with their clubs.
“It’ll be like that again this year, we’ll be out on a Sunday with lads having played with their clubs on a Friday or Saturday but it comes with the territory, we’re used to it at this stage.”
Hearteningly for Imokilly, last year’s defeat has not eroded the players’ dedication, which is pleasing for Cronin.
“Absolutely, especially with the clubs having their own objectives,” he says.
“For example, Castlelyons would have taken their premier intermediate campaign really seriously last year but the players were still dedicated to us.
“Rasper [Condon] and Derek Barrett stepping aside last year was a big change from what we were used to as that was a manager and a coach gone. We brought in Brendan Ring from Youghal and Alan Morrissey from Aghada, though Alan had to step away from it this year.
“He’s actually going playing with Blarney this year but he’s coming on board with us too.”
And so everything is geared towards the middle of July, when they will commence their campaign, with training ramping up in the interim.
“We’re aiming to do something every second Monday,” Cronin says.
“We have to try to keep the speed up with the lads, especially for the lads coming from junior clubs. At senior level, you need things to be sharp so that’s what we’re going to focus on.
“They’re going to be involved with their clubs at the weekends and then back training with them on a Tuesday so Monday was the only night we could chance.
“It’s good for lads to know the routine and they know they’ll be coming in to improve their skills rather than being run into the ground.”