AT the Cork U20 hurlers’ press conference prior to Saturday’s All-Ireland final against Dublin, manager Pat Ryan dismissed any notion that the team were weighed down by the baggage of Cork going so long without a title in the U21/U20 grade.
The drought was longer than any member of the panel, with selector Wayne Sherlock having been part of that last successful Cork side in 1998 (Sherlock, Ryan and another selector, Brendan Coleman, had all won in 1997, too).
Ryan took the entirely logical view that these players couldn’t change the past and could only influence the future – in that regard, they had a strong pedigree after enjoying success coming up the development-squad route and claiming the one-off All-Ireland U17 competition in 2017.
“These have been the most successful players we’ve had in the last 10 or 15 years,” he said.
“They’ve won at development squad level, they’ve been in Munster finals and won them, they won an All-Ireland at U17 level, albeit a one-off competition, they played in the 2019 All-Ireland U20 final.
“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 that day.”
In UPMC Nowlan Park, Cork proved that they are the best in the country and, while they had to battle hard to secure that status as Dublin fought back late on, the victory itself was always going to outweigh the manner in which it was achieved.
Certainly, a strong start in which Cork scored an uninterrupted 1-4 laid the foundations and one of the stars of the win, Pádraig Power, agreed that it was key to the 2-19 to 1-18 win.
“It was unreal,” he said.
“We said from the start that work-rate’s the main thing, that if we bring that the hurling would look after itself and it did in the end.
“It kind of took a bit of pressure off once we had a start like that.
“Against Tipp, nearly two years ago now [2019 final], they got a good start against us, so we were keen not to let that happen on Saturday. We reversed it and we drove on then.”
What was most pleasantly surprising about the Cork start – with Seán Twomey’s goal coming after Power had forced Dublin goalkeeper Eddie Gibbons into a save – is that it came despite the team not having played competitively since the Munster final win over Tipperary on December 23. However, once they were allowed back on the field, the focus was strong.
“We were having very intense sessions and games ourselves back in Cork,” Power said.
“We knew that Dublin would bring a very high intensity and try to work the ball out. We had to try to shut them down as much as possible so they couldn’t get it up the field.”
Despite having started the 2019 All-Ireland final against Tipp, Power wasn’t in the first 15 for the Munster final, though that was a reflection on the strength of the squad more than on him.
“Once you get your chance, you have to take it – it makes you try harder, I suppose!”
And the camaraderie, built up over a period of years, made lockdown that bit easier to cope with.
“Everybody knew each other,” Power said.
“We were on Zoom calls all year, having a good laugh on that, and we were doing sessions in twos or threes, trying to meet different people in small groups.
“There’s a strong bond there, that’s the main thing.”
Power got Cork’s second goal – “I missed one in the first half and Twomey tapped it in, so I had to get that one!” he laughed – and it ultimately ensured Cork had too much on the scoreboard for Dublin to reel in. The hope now is that the stars of the team can push on to senior level but for Power and others who are U20 again this year, there is the 2021 championship next week.
“Absolutely, yeah, we’re not going to stop here,” he said.
“We’re out again with the U20s in ten days, so we’ll see how that goes first.”