Former Cork star Shane O’Neill believes that the experience within the Rebels’ management team has been a key factor in the side coming through the back door to reach Sunday’s All-Ireland SHC final against Limerick in Croke Park.
O’Neill, a member of the Cork panel from 2005-16, played under manager Kieran Kingston in his previous stint in charge while he also has experience of selector Ger Cunningham and played alongside Diarmuid O’Sullivan. With Dónal O’Grady also in the backroom, the Bishopstown man feels that the expertise there has been hugely beneficial to a young Cork squad.
“Very rarely will you find an inexperienced set of players and inexperienced management,” he says.
“You need to have experience somewhere and Kieran has been selector, coach, manager previously to this stint; Sully has been a selector previously; Ger Cunningham has been selector and coach before; and with Dónal too it’s the same thing – he has years and years of experience.
“That’s probably been the biggest thing if you look at this season. They current management team have been able to pass on their experience on to the players.”
With the reigning champions the strong favourites to retain their title and claim the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the third time in four years, Kieran Kingston’s side are rated as outsiders but O’Neill thinks that status could be seen as a positive.
“I think you would look at it as a free hit if it wasn’t an All-Ireland final,” he says, “but you’re not there to make up the numbers.
“When you get to that stage, it’s about winning – I’m sure if the final score was 0-2 to 0-1 for Cork, we’d be delighted.
“You’d look at Limerick over the last few years and they’ve been the best team in the country by quite a stretch so I think it’s quite a nice position for Cork to be in.
“They’re going in under the radar and I wouldn’t mind playing a team that had beaten me already and having a second crack at them in the same season. All the better that it’s an All-Ireland final.”
Eight years ago, O’Neill was part of the last Cork team to reach the decider. Having lost the Munster final to Limerick, they regrouped with wins over Kilkenny and Dublin.
“We played alright in that Munster final against Limerick,” O’Neill says.
“Hoggie [Patrick Horgan] was sent off and it was debatable enough and we were still quite confident going into the qualifiers that year that we could put a run together.
“Obviously, beating Kilkenny gave us a massive lift. We did get decisions going our way but you need that, you need to have everything going for you.
“Obviously, you have to play well; the changes and the subs and the tactics all need to add up; a few decisions from the referee – very rarely is everything in your control.”
Cork were moments away from regaining the title, but Domhnall O’Donovan secured a draw for Clare, who triumphed in the replay.
“We were a lot closer to winning that drawn game than the replay,” O’Neill says.
“We came back into it in patches in the replay, but we gave up too much of an early lead. Any time we tried to claw ourselves back into it, Clare pulled away again. That’s just the way it goes.
“Again, looking back at the drawn match, it’s not as if we were playing particularly well or we were leading all the time – we only went ahead when Hoggie got his late point. It was just that we were so close!”
They wouldn’t come that close again, reaching the semi-final in 2014 before a quarter-final loss in 2015. In contrast to that, O’Neill feels that, whatever happens on Sunday, Cork will contend in the coming years.
“It’s a completely different set of personnel, obviously,” he says.
“If you took a snapshot of 2013, a lot of us were in our prime and we knew that we weren’t going to be around for the next decade. I don’t know what the exact numbers are, but if you look at the current starting 15 and the wider squad, they could easily put seven, eight, nine years together.
“There’s definitely more of a longevity with the current squad.”