PAT Ryan was part of the second-last Cork team to win an All-Ireland U21 title, back in 1997.
The following year, the Sarsfields man was overage but many of his colleagues were still eligible as the title retained, with those two sides providing many of the stars of the senior wins of 1999, 2004 and 2005.
However, that 1998 triumph against Galway remains Cork’s last at the grade, with the county losing the last U21 decider to Tipperary in 2018 and the first U20 final against the same opposition in 2019.
Now, Ryan is the man in charge as Cork look to make it third time lucky against Dublin in Nowlan Park tonight (7.15pm).
Managing a team like this is often about striking a balance between player development and winning on the field. The fact that six U20s – Shane Barrett, Alan Connolly, Daire Connery, Cormac O’Brien, Seán Twomey and Darragh Flynn – are involved with the senior panel ticks the first box, but the second one can’t be ignored either.
“I was asked that question when I was interviewed for the job and it’s 80 percent development, I would say,” he says.
“But, look, we haven’t won an All-Ireland in 23 years, so winning is a bit more this time, I would say 60-40. The best way to develop a team is to get as many games into it, get enough situations where you see what characters they have and what leadership you can get out of them.
“We’ve seen huge character from the lads and there has been huge development from that point of view.”
Taken alongside the wait for a senior All-Ireland (15 years) and a minor championship (20), the U21/U20 drought is often used as evidence of Cork decline, but he doesn’t feel that the team themselves are preoccupied with something that is out of their control – especially as their own formlines are so strong.
“These have been the most successful players we’ve had in the last ten or 15 years,” he says.
“They don’t see themselves as having baggage, they see themselves as being the best players in the country and rightly so, because they are. We’re expecting them to perform hugely on the day.”
It has been a strange campaign for Cork, considering they came together at the end of 2019 following the appointment of Ryan and his management team. With Covid-19 impacting heavily on the 2020 season, they played Kerry in October but it wasn’t until mid-December that they played their Munster semi-final away to Limerick, coming through after extra time, and then the final against Tipperary was the night before Christmas Eve.
While the plan had been that the All-Ireland decider against the Leinster champions would be mid-January, lockdown dictated matters again. With Dublin having beaten Galway a week and a half ago, they come into the final with a match under their belts, but Ryan sees advantages on his own side, too.
The most important thing is that the panel looked after themselves well during the period where collective training wasn’t allowed.
“We all went back training at the same time,” Ryan says.
“We’re coming in maybe a bit unknown to them because we’ll have changed things over the last five, six months. We’ve been delighted with the way the lads have come back fitness-wise, their attitude, their application to training since we came back.
“They’re in great shape, they’re in great form. We’re very lucky, touch wood, that apart from a small few niggles there has been no big injury, which has happened in other counties. We’re delighted with the way Adam McCarthy and our medical staff – Colm Coakley from Erin’s Own heads up that, with Dr Paddy Burke – have worked and the lads are in great shape.”
And the importance of a win in terms of Cork’s hurling future?
“It’s not like a noose hanging around our necks anyway, we don’t look at it like that,” Ryan says.
“I think that it’s vital for the lads for the effort they’ve put in, I think they deserve it, but you only get what you put into it on the night.
“We’re looking for a performance on Saturday that’s above what we’ve given all along because I think there’s more in us.
“I think the lads need to give that performance to beat Dublin but that’s in us and it’s vital that we do. We’ll be trying to drive the lads as hard as we can to get to July 10 in Nowlan Park.”