IN A season short on positives for Cork City, the emergence of Ronan Hurley was one of the few good-news stories.
Having not finished outside the top two of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division for the previous five seasons, City came eighth and had as many managers as home league wins (four).
With John Caulfield, who led City to the double in 2017, having been sacked in May, he was initially replaced on an interim basis by former assistant John Cotter before Frank Kelleher was given the title of manager due to FAI licensing rules regarding coaching badges.
Nevertheless, the campaign ended with some degree of optimism as new boss Neale Fenn brought about improvement and the Londoner showed faith in Hurley at left-back. The Schull native certainly feels that he is in a better position as 2020 begins.
‘Personally, I feel that I am, yeah,’ he says.
‘At the start of the season, I played in the home game against Waterford and I felt quite disappointed in my performance that night.
‘I had a tough three or four months after that because I was struggling for game-time.
‘Obviously, with Shane Griffin and Kevin O’Connor there, there was strong competition at left-back but when John Cotter gave me the chance in June or July, I felt I took it and that I played well, I was quite happy with my performances.’
While the poor results and changes on the sideline were hard to ignore, 20-year-old Hurley tried not to become unsettled.
‘When you’re actually in there, you just try to put your head down and not get distracted by all of the noise outside,’ he says.
‘You just focus on yourself and keep yourself fit and make sure you’re ready for the game at the weekend. The biggest change would be the different tactics used by the managers, each would have a different style of play so that’s something you have to adjust.’
In any event, it was probably the case that he was too busy to worry, given that, as well as full-time training, the former Cork underage footballer was in the second of four years as a commerce student in UCC.
He admits that balancing academic pursuits with sporting ones is a challenge.
‘It is definitely, during the season,’ he says, ‘but it’s kind of handy now when you’re not training as much.
‘Coming up to exams, I can cram it all in in the last week!’
Having come back into the team under Cotter during the summer, Hurley then missed a chunk of games in September before regaining his spot for the final stretch of matches.
‘In the FAI Cup game against Cabinteely, I picked up an ankle injury,’ he says.
‘It was never right but I was still able to play on it. Because I was playing on it, I ended up injuring my calf as I was putting more pressure on one leg.
‘I pulled my calf muscle and that put me out for five weeks but the upside of that was that it gave my ankle time to settle.
‘I came back then and I was fully fit.’
That Cabinteely game was also notable for the fact that he scored his first goal for the senior team, a strike in the last minute of extra time to make it 2-2 and send the game into extra time.
‘Hopefully not the last goal I’ll score!’ Hurley laughs.
‘It was an unbelievable feeling, you wouldn’t really think that you’re going to score a last-minute goal to keep your team in the cup.
‘The ball just came to me and I struck it and thank God it ended up in the net.’
What made it all the more impressive was the that the 25-yard shot was taken with his right foot rather than his left.
‘I would generally be left-footed, I wouldn’t go on to the right too much,’ he says.
‘But it sat up well for me and I just struck it as hard as I could. I’ll have to start shooting with the right from now on!’
Looking ahead to 2020, Hurley is ready to progress further, especially given that Fenn doesn’t see age as a barrier.
‘He was willing to give the young lads a chance,’ he says.
‘Alec Byrne came into the team too and he was very good and Beineon O’Brien and a few other lads came up from the U19s.
‘He wasn’t afraid to throw the young lads in and I felt that we all did quite well. Hopefully we’ll be able to push on now next year.’
From a personal point of view, Hurley is obviously cognisant of his primary duties as a left-back but he’s also keen to make more of an impact further up the field and wants to ensure he bulks up, too.
‘I’m looking to improve my attacking play and do a little bit more in the final third,’ he says.
‘If I can pick up a few more goals and get a bit stronger, because you’re playing against men and it’s tougher, then I’d be happy. The off-season is a chance to hit the gym as much as you can.
‘Obviously, I just want to help the team do well and get us back to where we were, challenging near the top of the table.’