IN 1996, Newtownshadrum were playing Ballyhea in a North Cork U21 final when Pat Mulcahy got talking to Ben O’Connor on the pitch beforehand.
Mulcahy was captain and was in his last year U21. O’Connor was only 17. Mulcahy said he had never beaten Ballyhea in the championship.
O’Connor looked at him perplexed, aghast almost that Mulcahy would be nervous facing Ballyhea — O’Connor had never lost to Ballyhea at any level. Ever.
The O’Connors — Ben and Jerry — had enjoyed a level of underage success that Mulcahy hadn’t, but their father Bernie had also instilled in them an unwavering belief about what they could achieve from a young age.
Bernie O’Connor used to regularly tell the Newtown players — long before they ever won anything in Cork — that they should be dominating the scene.
They eventually did. Newtown went on to win four county titles in 10 seasons, but they made their name beyond Cork.
Newtown had no history in the Munster Club Championship, but they carved a unique tradition by winning three titles between 2003-2009.
“The Munster championship games were real adventures for us,” recalled Pat Mulcahy a few years back.
We felt they weren’t as tactical as the Cork championship because people didn’t know you as well.
“We could express ourselves a little bit more. Those were the games we enjoyed. The county championship games were more pressure.”
The provincial and All-Ireland championships are always naturally an increased standard, but many clubs perform to a higher level in those competitions because they feel liberated outside the confines of their county.
That can be especially evident when the pressure to win a county title was often an overbearing presence before those players actually won it. Once they did, the shackles were off.
Newtown absolutely loved Munster. After their maiden campaign in 2000, which ended in a one-point defeat to Mount Sion in Walsh Park, Newtown went into every provincial campaign solely focussed on winning it.
So it was no surprise to hear Ben O’Connor’s stated ambition shortly after Midleton had won the county title three weeks ago.
“We’re going to have a right cut off Kilmallock,” he said.
“We’re going all-out to win Munster, and we’re not hiding that. It’s not too often that you win a county, and it isn’t too often you get an opportunity to represent your county after that.
“We want to stay in this competition for as long as we can. I just think the pressure is off.
“The hardest thing is to win your county. Everybody knows your team, everybody knows what way you set up and everything. I just always found that when we got there ourselves [with Newtownshandrum] that we went out and enjoyed it.”
O’Connor’s experience will be vital in this crucible, especially with Sunday’s semi-final against Kilmallock on in the Gaelic Grounds. Yet Midleton will also relish the opportunity to broaden their horizons.
The real heat is off now, but Midleton will still be putting themselves under a certain amount of pressure to do well in Munster because of their rich tradition in the competition.
O’Connor and the rest of the Midleton management will tap into that heritage, but they’ll also seek to take inspiration from a yearning within the club to rekindle memories from a time when Midleton used to dominate this terrain.
In the four years Midleton competed in the Munster club between 1983-1991, they reached three finals, winning two.
The only year Midleton did not reach the decider was in 1986, when they lost to Limerick’s Claughan after a replay. Claughan were subsequently edged out in the semi-final by a Borris-Ileigh side which went on to win the All-Ireland.
After their three-point defeat to Cashel King Cormac’s in the 1991 Munster final, it took Midleton another 22 years before they got the chance to compete in Munster again. They had home advantage in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, but Midleton lost to Clare’s Sixmilebridge by four points.
Conor Lehane did hit the side-netting with a goal chance in the closing minutes, but Midleton could have no complaints as they were beaten by a far hungrier, slicker, and more composed team.
Midleton would have been disappointed with that display, but it also followed the trend of disappointing results for Cork clubs in Munster since Newtown last won a provincial senior title in 2009.
Sarsfields can count themselves unlucky not to have reached a couple of finals.
They lost the 2010 and 2014 semi-finals to De la Salle and Kilmallock, respectively, after extra-time, and both sides went on the win Munster and reach the All-Ireland.
Glen Rovers’ one-point win against Patrickswell in the Gaelic Grounds in the 2016 semi-final was Cork’s only notable club hurling result in the last decade.
But the Glen were then well beaten by Ballyea in the final.
Imokilly’s dominance between 2017 and 2019 skewed the performance levels of Cork clubs in the latter years of the competition because interest was bound to wane when the Cork representatives were not county champions.
Sarsfields did go all-out to win Munster in the earlier part of the last decade, but few clubs have applied the same level of ambition to Munster as Newtown routinely did in their pomp.
Yet with the infusion of Ben O’Connor’s experience and ambition now, along with Midleton’s desire to rekindle old glories again, the Cork champions will be hell-bent on trying to return Midleton to where they feel they belong.