When the spectre of Covid-19 first reared its head, county GAA players born in 2000 must have feared the worst.
With the minor grade changing from U18 to U17 in 2018, they were the group to miss out on their minor year, though there was a special one-off U17 competition in 2017, which Cork won, beating Dublin in the final.
Three GAA seasons – and four years – on, the same sides clash in Saturday’s All-Ireland U20 final at Nowlan Park in Kilkenny, but there were times when one of the Cork stars, Daire Connery, feared that his cohort might miss out again.
“We were a bit down for a while because there was speculation that they were going to scrap it,” he says, “which would have been a pity because U20 is a great competition. It would have been my third go at it now and I would have been really gutted if it got scrapped.
“There are a lot of lads there, some of them might never play for Cork again, which would be a pity. We lost out on our year at minor too. We missed out on our U18 year so it would have been heartbreaking, to be honest. Thank God the GAA kept it going because it would have been a great pity otherwise.”
Dublin recently beat Galway in the Leinster final but Cork come into the game in the somewhat strange situation of having not played since the night before Christmas Eve, when Tipperary were beaten in the Munster final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Connery and team-mates Alan Connolly, Shane Barrett, Seán Twomey, Cormac O’Brien and Darragh Flynn have been involved with the senior panel in the interim, however. The Na Piarsaigh man admits that the step up is appreciable.
“The pace and the intensity, it is a completely different game of hurling,” he says.
“Just the pace is a step up, the physicality is a step up. Your thinking, in general, has to be a lot quicker. You won’t get the same time in the seniors as you would in the U20s. It took time to get used to, but we’re happy out with it.”
Connery was right half-back in the Munster final while he can also operate at midfield. He’s happy to play wherever he’s picked and he is lucky to be able to call upon the wisdom of his father Christy, a member of the 1990 All-Ireland-winning panel.
“You are either six inches away from subtle advice or a kick up the backside!” he laughs.
“It is a great help. There is stuff I’d gain off him that he would have experienced. He played in the 1990 team, he has been there and done it. It is great to get a bit of advice off him.
“I always said if I had a good game, the car was quiet on the way home, but if I had a bad game, he’d have everything to say!”
Having stars in his midst down the club helped too.
“I grew up when Piarsaigh were winning the senior county title,” he says.
“My first memory as a child was 2004 when you had Gardiner and the three Ó hAilpíns, so they were great role models to look up to. You saw that they were local lads too. You saw they can play for Cork and you say to yourself, I can do that too.”
Connery is a student in UCC, training to become a teacher, having just finished placement in his alma mater, Gaelcholáiste Mhuire AG. Saturday’s clash will be his third taste of an U21/U20 final, with Cork losing the last U21 final in 2018 and first U20 decider in 2019 to Tipperary.
“Denis Ring, thankfully, gave me an opportunity in 2018,” he says.
“You had Darragh Fitzgibbon, Mark Coleman and all those lads on that team. We lost to Tipp that day, unfortunately, we lost again to them in 2019 so this is our third go at it. We are looking to finally get it this year.
“You always want a medal at the end of the year. To be honest, Pat [Ryan, Cork manager] nailed into us there at the start of the year that we are looking to make our own history. We are not dwelling on the past. There are fellas here who have played in all three finals, like myself, but we are not dwelling on that, we are just looking forward, looking forward to making our own sort of history.”
Ultimately, it’s about channelling experiences in the right way.
“You are either winning or you are learning,” Connery says.
“There is huge learnings to take from even the minor final when we lost to Galway . It was the first Sunday in September, that was our first taste of the big day, it was a full Croke Park.
“There are things that I did back then and you are looking at them now and you are like, ‘Why in the name of God did I do that?!”
“Even in 2019, you nearly had a full Gaelic Grounds. The big thing is you are learning how to deal with the big days. In 2018, you are learning how to bounce back from a defeat. There are great learnings in it.”
On the flipside, there are the positive memories of the U17 victory over Dublin in 2017, but Connery doesn’t feel that that will have too much influence on this weekend’s game.
“If anything, it is a day out in Croke Park, really,” he says.
“If a few people go onto the seniors and if we are lucky enough to get to All-Ireland finals at senior level, it is there in the bank that you’ve won in Croke Park.
“I know we played Dublin that day, but to me that is in the past. That is four years ago. They have done a lot of improving since then too. It is all up for grabs, really.”