Christy O'Connor on how Pat Ryan is integrating U20s into the Cork line-up

League win over Galway saw Deccie Dalton and Conor Lehane hit massive tallies but rookies were also essential to the Rebels getting a grip on the game in the middle third
Christy O'Connor on how Pat Ryan is integrating U20s into the Cork line-up

Galway's Evan Niland is swarmed by a pack of Cork hurlers led by Cormac O'Brien at Pearse Stadium. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

AT the end of the 2020 Cork-Dublin All-Ireland U20 final, played in July 2021, there was a brilliant photograph taken of Daire Connery and Darragh Flynn, which perfectly encapsulated that famine-ending result, and what it meant to Cork.

Connery, who was hugging Flynn, was so deeply emotional that tears were streaming down his face. Connery’s emotional state was understandable considering how much pain he had endured, having lost an All-Ireland minor and U20 final in previous years.

Nobody was going to get carried away with one result. An All-Ireland underage title is never a guarantee that enough players will go on play senior, which is the ultimate aim of any underage setup. 

Cork lost the 2018 All-Ireland U21 final but 12 of the 17 players Cork used that day went on to play senior championship.

It takes even longer now for players to mature and find their way at senior, especially since the grade moved back to U20. Yet, however Cork do in the coming years, Sunday’s game may be seen as a critical staging post and landmark in framing Cork’s future: 10 of the players which lined out in that 2020 U20 final played in Salthill.

Eighteen of those 20 players to feature in that U20 final have already been part of the Cork senior set-up at some stage over the last couple of years. But Sunday can firmly be acknowledged as the day they collectively graduated as a group at senior level.

Despite Cork winning successive U20 titles in 2020 and 2021, the potential to transplant a raft of those young players straight into the team like Cork routinely did in the past was no longer viable, especially with the S&C ladder, and with so many of those players still on the bottom rungs.

Yet the material for continuous transitional improvement still clearly existed and Kieran Kingston and his management begun that integrational process in the last two years.


Some of those players got their opportunity on Sunday because of circumstance – injuries and with Cork having so many players tied up in the Fitzgibbon Cup.

Returning players will be given their chance in the coming rounds. Pat Ryan won’t just fire a raft of rookies into the starting team come the championship. But a lot of those young players will undoubtedly form a large part of the framework of the side during Ryan’s tenure.

The league will always only be the league. Galway being reduced to 14 men so early in the second half, along with Cork’s two goals in quick succession, effectively ended the game. Despite being in total control, Cork still shipped two late goals and made the last few minutes far more uncomfortable than they needed to be.

Yet, at some stage, a manager has to create a new identity for his group. Every squad needs time to develop and evolve but the make-up of Sunday’s panel underlined the rapid level of transition that may yet take place this season under Ryan.

Eleven of the players which featured on Sunday weren’t part of the match-day 26 for last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway, with six of those players not even part of the extended panel, full stop.

Whatever about Galway’s attitude or performance on Sunday, they still gave game-time to 14 of the players which featured in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final.

Tempers flair between Galway and Cork players on Sunday. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Tempers flair between Galway and Cork players on Sunday. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

Cork’s failure to take their goal chances was the primary reason they lost that game. 

The league can never be equated to championship but Cork’s four goals in Pearse Stadium was a sign that some of those lessons have been absorbed. Four goals could also have been at least six.

Similar to their opening league game against Limerick, Cork are also clearly finding their way as they go. After getting hammered on puck-outs in the first quarter against Limerick, Cork were also under real pressure on restarts in the first quarter on Sunday.

Yet when Cork got a grip on the match in the second quarter, it stemmed from securing five successive Galway puck-outs, which Cork translated into 0-3.

After winning just three of the first 11 long balls played into their full-forward line, those numbers also came up as the game progressed. After having just a 50% conversion rate against Limerick, Cork’s conversion rate was an impressive 73% on Sunday.


There were also a handful of standout individual performances, especially up front, with Declan Dalton in particular delivering his best display in a Cork jersey. From 26 plays, Dalton scored 0-6, set up 1-3, while he engineered another goal chance and was fouled for two frees. One of those points could also have been a goal.

As well as scoring 0-4, Shane Barrett set up 1-2 and almost had a goal when crashing a shot off the crossbar. Similar to Dalton, Barrett’s work-rate out the field was impressive and productive. So was Seán Twomey’s; as well as scoring two goals, Twomey was fouled for two frees.

After his disappointing performance against Galway last June, this was also a redemptive afternoon for Conor Lehane; along with scoring 2-3 from play, Lehane also set up 1-3 and was fouled for a free.

Galway's Darren Morrissey and Conor Lehane of Cork in action. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Galway's Darren Morrissey and Conor Lehane of Cork in action. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

Nobody will be getting carried away with this win but four league points from four, along with a fifth successive victory of the year, is as good a start as Pat Ryan and his management could have hoped for.

It’s still only mid-February, but already, Cork are beginning to create a new identity. And a vibrant batch of young players are at the core of it.

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