SO, how was the county hurling championship on Leeside for you in 2021?
Firstly, the county board must be applauded for all the grades of the championship that were run off and completed.
The new group format is an onerous task, with the timing of games and provision of venues for the vast schedule that has to be played out across five grades of hurling.
But it’s all done and dusted now, the five clubs that emerged victorious being able to reflect on a job very well done, while for the rest it’s a case of going that extra few miles next time.
Two clubs, Lisgoold and Castlemartyr, had the distinction of winning two county titles in three months, a feat that’s unlikely to be repeated ever again. But we live in strange times and that’s how that transpired for both East Cork clubs.
Both have graduated to a higher grade now, a more difficult grade for sure, but both seem to be in a very good place going forward.
Of course, the big story was Midleton coming in from the cold to regain the senior crown after an eight-year wait, since 2013.
In the championship of 2020, they failed to get out of their group and a lot of gloom descended on Clonmult Memorial Park.
But lessons were learned, the management and coaching side of things, led superbly by Ger Fitzgerald and Ben O’Connor, took on board those lessons and what resulted was a well-deserved return to the winner’s enclosure.
Making certain that there would be no slip-up this time was the initial priority and, despite losing to Sarsfields at the group stage, they had already made sure of their place in the knockout stage.
Having Erin’s Own for company in the quarter-final immediately had them in the right frame of mind for that assignment and the victorious outcome strengthened their hand considerably going forward.
Given how competitive all games are in east Cork in the grade, the victory bolstered them in trying to unseat the reigning champions, Blackrock, in the semi-final. In a highly competitive encounter, a high-scoring contest, they played some superb hurling and they made all their four goals count.
In the final, they were the better team for the most part but allowed a one-time nine-point advantage to slip away. However, they reinvented themselves again and a goal was the difference against a Glen Rovers unit that fought to the bitter end.
Conor Lehane was the main man all season, regaining the form that once had him up among the best forwards in the country. His man-of-the-match display in the final was a huge contributory factor in their re-emergence.
Tommy O’Connell was a revelation in his new defensive role at centre-back and he put himself into the Cork frame. Young Ciarmac Smyth, still a student in Midleton CBS, fully justified his presence on the team and Cormac Walsh’s consistency was vital.
Young Sam Quirke had a fabulous innings too around the middle and Cormac Beausang put up some very big scores across the campaign.
And there’s no reason now why this bunch of Midleton players cannot compete at the top end for the next season or two and maybe add another title to the list, something that did not happen after the 2013 win.
Fr O’Neill’s suffered heartbreak for the second time in the final of the senior A championship, the loss, through injury, of Deccie Dalton a huge blow. And Ger Millerick, whilst coming in off the bench in the final, was not have been fully fit and they needed this superb hurler going at full throttle.
But full credit to Kanturk, on the day they were the best team and ended up as rightful champions. All the more so considering that they were going full belt in both codes, with so many dual players led superbly by Lorcán McLoughlin.
One of the best games across the entire championship was the Premier Intermediate final featuring Coucey Rovers and the beaten finalists from the previous season, Castlelyons.
For a long stretch, it looked like they were going to be fully compensated for the 2020 loss to Blarney. At one juncture in the game, they led by eight points and were seemingly on their way to regaining senior status.
But history has illustrated that you never write off a Courceys team and slowly, but surely, they came back at their opponents. Olan Crowley’s goal was a huge moment in the contest and it gave the men from Ballinspittle the impetus to go on to claim a terrific victory.
This was a belter of a contest, full of honesty and endeavour and a splendid advertisement for Cork club hurling.
That final more or less brought the curtain down on a great season of club hurling on Leeside. Every club got to play at least three games and for the lucky teams a lot more.
And that is what the new format was designed for: Providing more games for club players.
From that perspective, the championship was a huge success. For some, it was a lot more successful, but every club got a fair crack of the whip.
Long may it continue.