MICHAEL Hurley is determined to prove that there’s a lot more to him than just being ‘Brian’s brother’.
The youngest of the four Hurley brothers from Union Hall, Michael (20) is spearheading Cork’s quest for a record 12th All-Ireland U21 football championship title – and a first since 2009 – with Mayo in his crosshairs this Saturday evening in Ennis, at 6pm.
After a frustrating stop-start run over the past couple of seasons, the Carlow IT Sport and Exercise second-year student is (touch wood) injury free, and Cork’s U21s are reaping the benefits.
Man-of-the-match in the All-Ireland semi-final win against Monaghan, Hurley has chipped in with 1-10, all from play, in Cork’s run to Saturday’s All-Ireland final, and he’s starting to build on the promise he showed as one of the county’s top underage players.
Injuries over the last few seasons – including broken thumbs in 2013 and ’14, and torn ankle ligaments also, as well as hamstring and back trouble last year – have held him back, but this attack-minded forward is now up to full speed, and eager to show that there’s more to him than just being the younger brother of Cork senior forward Brian Hurley, who also shot to prominence as a fast, direct attacker.
‘A lot of people know me as “Brian’s brother” but I want to make a name for myself and show people that there’s more to me than just being Brian’s brother,’ Michael told The Southern Star.
‘The last few years were frustrating more than anything. I was missing out on big games and it’s hard when you’re sitting on the bench and you can’t do much about it. It feels good this year to be on the pitch and on a bit of a roll.
‘I didn’t really train last season. At the start of last year my hamstring was bothering me and I had a back problem. Throughout the year I was minding myself because the fear was there that I’d suffer a reoccurrence of an injury. Before games I couldn’t do much and after games I was resting. I was wrapped in cotton wool.
‘Last year I wasn’t training when I played with Castlehaven and I knew that there was an extra 10 or 20 per cent in me. It’s frustrating when you’re not playing at full speed, but I couldn’t do that training to sharpen my game.
‘This year is different, the last few months I’ve been full tilt at training and in the gym with some rehab work. It’s paying off. This year I feel a lot better and the more training I get, the better I feel.’
Back feeling 100 per cent, he’s a big addition to the Cork U21 attack, and with a point to prove.
The memories of consoling his heartbroken brother Brian, after Cork lost the 2013 All-Ireland U21 final to Galway at the Gaelic Grounds, serve as a warning to Michael ahead of this Saturday’s decider.
Brian scored 1-4 on that Saturday evening in Limerick but it wasn’t enough to stop the young Tribesmen win their second All-Ireland U21 title in three years.
In fact, as prominent as both Brian and Michael have been in their underage days with Cork, and while the four Hurley brothers – including older siblings Shane and Stephen – have contributed so much to Castlehaven’s county success, none of the four has ever won an All-Ireland medal.
Michael wants to change that.
‘Brian lost two All-Ireland finals, including the U21 in 2013. I still remember going onto the pitch in Limerick after the game, and I never saw Brian as upset and as frustrated with himself. I know myself that chances of winning an All-Ireland don’t come around too often so I want to grab it by the neck and take it. You can’t have any regrets.’
As the younger brother, Michael has the benefit of leaning on his brothers’ experiences on the football field and he taps into this knowledge whenever he can. As sounding boards go, Brian ticks the box for Michael.
‘In fairness to the three lads, it’s nice to have them there to help me along the way,’ he said.
‘Brian likes to keep me grounded more so than the others, but that’s because he’s played at the very top level and he knows how this all works. Before the big games, he’d always give me some advice. It’s the same after games – he tells me as it is. There’s no sugar-coating it. If I didn’t do as well as I wanted to, he says it straight out.
‘Brian won’t let me get too ahead of myself. He has the experience. He has made mistakes and he’s learned from them, and he’s keen for me not to make the same mistakes.’
Giving Brian a courteous hat-tip for his advice, Michael adds with a smile: ‘If you put us in a straight sprint, I’d be fairly confident. Speed is my biggest asset so I think he’d be second best there. But if it was a dogfight between us, I wouldn’t fancy my chances so I’d give him the nod.’
On the bus back to Cork after the semi-final win against Monaghan, the topic of conversation turned to the scrapping of this very U21 football championship that has provided some epic games in the past few weeks – including both All-Ireland semi-finals (Cork v Monaghan, Mayo v Dublin) and the Cork v Kerry Munster final.
GAA Congress voted in February to, from 2018, change the U21 football championship to an U20 development championship that will run June to August, and any player named on a senior inter-county panel will be ineligible for this new grade. Also, there will be no replays, with games to go to extra-time and a possible sudden-death free-taking shoot-out.
So, this is the second-last All-Ireland U21 championship ever, and while Michael is underage again next season, he admits he isn’t a fan of binning this grade.
‘After the Monaghan game, coming home on the bus, I was thinking about the U21 championship. I turned to one of the lads and said: “what are they getting rid of this grade for?” Look at the games in Tullamore, they were a great advert for the GAA,’ the Castlehaven forward said.
‘I know the reasons behind getting rid of the U21 championship are to do with player burnout and I can understand them too – but look at the games and atmospheres in Tralee and Tullamore lately, it’s a great championship, and it has been this way for years.’
The rules won’t change however, so Michael and Co are focussing their efforts on Mayo this Saturday evening, after the Connacht men dramatically beat Dublin (1-15 to 1-14) in their semi-final.
‘Mayo football is flying and they have a few senior players in there as well so we are expecting a massive challenge. We are confident because we are playing well but we know this is a step-up again,’ Michael said.
‘The first two games in Munster (against Clare and Waterford) weren’t of much benefit to us. You can only play what’s in front of you but ahead of the Kerry game people were questioning that if it came down to the wire, would Cork have it in them to win a battle? But we showed against Kerry in the Munster final that we are good enough. A lot of credit has to go the management because they have us mentally prepared before games.’
The Cork full-forward line of Brian Coakley, county senior Peter Kelleher and Hurley has also been key, as it’s a cocktail of brains, power, speed, finishing and class has scored 4-27 in the four championship games this season.
For Michael, it’s all a learning curve, especially when the opposition funnels players back behind the ball to fill gaps and deny space to players like him.
‘It’s about patience. You have to wait for your opportunity to come and when it does, take it,’ he said.
‘Against Monaghan I was struggling in the first 10, 15 minutes. They were playing a sweeper. The ball coming in wasn’t the best because they were packing the defence so it was frustrating. We knew that as the game went on and when we were leading by a few points that they would have to push up. They did that and it gave us space, and I got more space, which worked for me.’
Mayo have been forewarned about the threat of the Cork attack and the Haven man is bracing himself for some close attention on Saturday, but when the chance does arrive Michael Hurley – and not ‘Brian’s brother’ – will be ready to grab the headlines all on his own.