Christy O'Connor: Cork football must tap into clear supply of underage talent

Since 2019 Cork have landed two minor and two U20 titles in Munster, along with an All-Ireland at each grade
Christy O'Connor: Cork football must tap into clear supply of underage talent

Cork players celebrate after the big minor win over Kerry last week at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

CORK'S Munster minor football final win last week didn’t trigger the same explosion of emotion that Cork’s Munster U20 final victory against Kerry in 2019 unleashed but it still carried so many echoes of the mood that evening three years ago.

The crowd in Páirc Uí Rinn wasn’t as big as it had been for that 2019 final but Kerry had been even warmer favourites last week because of the hammering they’d dished out to Cork in the championship just three weeks earlier.

During the presentation afterwards, there was a decent crowd of Cork supporters on the pitch. By the time Colm Gillespie emerged from the stand with the cup, the rest of the squad had gathered just outside the gate and Gillespie jumped into that collective embrace of pure joy and delirium.

As the squad posed in a pack for a photograph, the multitude of kids who had gathered around the margins spotted their opportunity and closed in around the squad as the cameras flashed. It became so chaotic that order had to be restored and a proper squad photo had to organised.

The mood continued to be flooded with ecstasy and elation, right across the board. When the players began jumping up and down again with the cup after the photo, a couple of small boys with Cork tracksuits, aged no more than eight or nine, got in on the act. It was a class image, a brilliant moment when Cork football felt intrinsically connected to its people, especially those it hopes to inspire now and in the future.

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Cork football has always existed in that twilight zone between hurling hype and the Cork GAA public’s ambivalence towards its first cousin. At times, the connection has been so loose that football is treated like a third or fourth cousin, where the link doesn’t really matter or mean anything significant.

It does though when Cork footballers give the public something to be proud of, something that reminds them of what Cork football is capable of, when they show that brazen and confident attitude that is almost expected of Cork sportspeople, but which too many Cork football teams have failed to show.

In fairness to legions of Cork underage teams in recent years, that accusation could rarely be levelled at them. They may not have always won as much as the Cork public would have liked (those that were interested anyway), or as much as they were capable of, but they still invariably fronted up and played with the pride and application expected off the jersey.

When Kerry gobbled up five All-Ireland minor titles in a row between 2014-18, the hardest game they got in many of those seasons was against Cork in Munster. In 2015 and 2018, Kerry beat Cork in those Munster semi-finals by just one point. After that 2015 meeting, Kerry went on to win their next four games by an aggregate margin of 34 points.

It was just Cork’s misfortune to have lost out in provincial semi-finals in those seasons because those teams were good enough to come back and beat Kerry and win the All-Ireland through the back-door.

Although Cork were annihilated by Kerry in May, the system is far more accommodating now towards restoration and redemption and Cork got a chance for atonement last week, which they firmly grasped.

Turning a 14-point whipping into an 11-point victory underlines the vagaries of the U17 grade, but Cork manager Michael O’Brien made an interesting point in his post-match TG4 interview about how the players reacted after the first Kerry game.

“It happened, it was done,” said O’Brien. “We had a quick chat, we knew we hadn’t performed, and we wanted to perform. We knew coming here that we were going to deliver an excellent performance.” 

BAGGAGE

It can often be that basic with underage players because they don’t carry baggage, primarily because they haven’t built it up like older players, while they often don’t over-think matters as much either.

The S&C factor is never going to be as prevalent in over-riding skill at minor level like it does at senior. 

But the way in which the minors recovered from the Kerry beating provided another illustration of what Cork football is capable of if they can harness that conviction inherent in their DNA, but which is too easily washed away at senior level.

Innocence and lack of fear quickly wear off once players go into that bearpit at senior level. Quality, class, power and absolute cut-throat ruthlessness then take over, which Cork have clearly been lacking for most of the last decade. 

Cork are still a long way off the level they should be aspiring towards at senior level, but the key for Cork going forward in the rest of the senior championship is not to over-think matters and to just throw off the shackles like the minors did.

Cork's Ian Maguire and Louth's Sam Mulroy go high for the ball. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Cork's Ian Maguire and Louth's Sam Mulroy go high for the ball. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Of course, it’s not that simple as just going out and having a cut but that’s the attitude Cork need to take now ahead of Saturday’s qualifier. Last Saturday’s win against Louth underlined how much ground Cork still have to cover but at least they have a chance of making up some of it.

They can also look to the minors for inspiration in how to bounce back. Of course, the terms and conditions are different. The Cork seniors are certainly not going to beat Kerry if they meet them again in this championship. 

But learning the lessons of that defeat will still be instrumental in how far Cork can yet go in this championship.

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