AFTER Conor Lehane scored a free in the 52nd minute of last Sunday’s game against Tipperary, Ger Canning took the opportunity to speak about the Midleton player in his TV commentary.
“He has been seen as something of an enigma on occasions,” said Canning. “He has been able to play with absolute brilliance but there are other days when he’s not seen to full effect.”
Enigmatic is a word long associated with Lehane but he gave a display for the ages, where his brilliance was ordained by his class and wizardry.
When Damian Lawlor interviewed Lehane before he was presented with his man-of-the-match award, he asked Lehane about his year away from the squad in 2021 and how that decision had impacted on him.
“It’s super being back,” he said. “Just delighted. I’m just taking every game as it comes.”
Lehane was right to be coy but the delight and inner satisfaction was smeared across his face throughout the interview. Lehane was beaming.
He had every right to be because days like Sunday seemed to be beyond him when he was dropped off the squad at the end of 2020.
After a club season in 2021 though, when Lehane was the best forward in the Cork senior championship, scoring 0-55, 0-22 from play, Lehane was fully deserving of the recall.
It was a brave move by Kieran Kingston and his management. As Liam Sheedy noted in his post-match commentary last Sunday when a player drifts into the wilderness “the easy thing to do is to leave them there”.
Kingston didn’t take the easy option but Lehane still faced the same challenges that led to him being dropped in the first place. His work-rate had to improve. He had to get physically stronger especially when the inter-county game has become such a theatre of combat now that it’s becoming harder for magicians to perform their tricks.
Yet the realisation dawned on Lehane long before he even got back on the panel, or long before the possibility of such a return with Cork even materialised.
During the lockdown in early 2021, Lehane did an incredibly intensive fitness and conditioning programme which transformed his body into a ball of power and muscle.
That also meant a change to his diet but the programme enabled Lehane to go to that next level.
Whether Lehane was deeply hurt by being dropped, or the decision made him realise what he needed to do to have any chance of even getting back, Lehane deserves huge credit for doing it.
Midleton were beneficiaries last year but going back into the inter-county game was the ultimate test, especially when everyone was looking to see if Lehane was willing to change his game and evolve. And he certainly has.
His display on Sunday was no surprise because nobody has ever doubted Lehane’s class and brilliance. Scoring seven points from play is well within his compass but assessing his wider contribution underlined how Lehane’s game now extends far beyond his contribution on the scoreboard.
As well as having five direct assists, Lehane was fouled for a converted free and had a hand in another point. He also had a shot blocked while he could have had two goals and was heavily involved in another goal chance.
For a player who was once only measured by his contribution on the scoreboard, Lehane has turned into an assists machine. In the league games against Clare, Limerick, Galway, Kilkenny and Waterford, Lehane had assists for 2-12. In the Waterford and Tipperary championship matches, Lehane had assists for 0-10.
His appetite and desire to hunt the ball is unrecognisable from the player Lehane was before he was dropped. He is regularly spotted now taking possession inside his own ’45, sometimes even inside his own 20-metre line.
The work-rate of the Cork forwards in the first half against Waterford in Walsh Park was nowhere near as high as it was in the second half but Lehane was exempt from any of those charges because his work-rate was outstanding throughout. The amount of off the ball running he did, especially on puck-outs, made life difficult for the Waterford defence all afternoon.
Lehane’s best position is centre-forward because he needs to be in the game. He needs to be centrally involved to keep him ticking but Lehane has found a way to make that happen by not waiting for the action to come to him.
He wants the ball so he is prepared to go wherever he can to get on it. And he now has the engine and the capacity to take those ferocious hits in the combat zone which enables him to play that game.
That freedom suits Lehane because he is not restricted in certain zones, like trying to win 50-50 balls up along the sideline, which has always been a struggle for him.
Lehane made 38 plays against Waterford and Tipperary but his numbers were vastly reduced against Limerick and Clare when Lehane only made 15 plays.
He was only introduced at half-time against Clare but Lehane – and his team-mates – know that the rest of this season will be defined by how Cork can match up to that manic level of aggression and intensity they’ll meet against the top sides, and which they weren’t faced with from Waterford and Tipperary.
That will be the real challenge for Cork, including Lehane, but that still doesn’t take from what he has achieved to date this year – Lehane has been an absolute credit to himself with how he has returned to, and thrived in, the inter-county game.
And the inter-county game has been far better and richer for his return.