LAST WORD COLUMN BY SPORTS EDITOR KIERAN McCARTHY
RONAN McCarthy pulled Brian Hurley aside in Thurles on Saturday evening. The Cork manager had just watched Hurley turn the Laois defence inside out and back to front. The Castlehaven man kicked 2-4 from play. He was devastating. It was the Hurley of old.
McCarthy told him it was his best game for Cork since his comeback. It was by some distance. Hurley proved he isn’t just a finisher. There’s a lot more to his game.
‘His play in bringing people into it, showing all the time, his running off the ball and his decision making were brilliant. I actually thought it was by far his best game. He’ll only get stronger,’ McCarthy purred.
There was much to admire about Hurley’s 53-minute performance. The speed of body and mind. The clinical edge. The industry. The work-rate.
His brace made it five goals in three championship games – two against Limerick, one against Kerry and the double against Laois. Go back to his last league game, he banged in a double against Armagh in Omagh before limping off. That’s seven goals in 204 minutes. Or one every 30 minutes. That’s impressive.
He’s come a long way from those dark days when he feared his football career was over. Those two horror hamstring injuries flattened him. The first in June 2016 when he ripped his right hamstring four inches off the bone, the second in March 2017 when he tore the same hamstring, again.
He was told he’d never play football at the top level again and that he couldn’t be operated on. That frightened him.
There were some dark days. Low moments. But he never gave up. He found a surgeon who would operate on him. The third comeback began, as he found his own route back to the top. And now he’s picking up speed and finding gears he probably felt he’d never be able to reach for again.
Hurley’s story is incredible. It’s a lesson to anyone to never give up your dream. When he was told it was all over, he refused to believe it. Now he’s coming off the back of scoring 2-4 against Laois and preparing to play the All-Ireland champions, Dublin, in Croke Park this Saturday night.
‘It’s unbelievable for Brian. I was living with him when he was going through those tough times and I saw what it meant to him. There was one evening when he thought it was all over so to be kicking 2-4 and heading to Croke Park, it’s dream stuff for him, and I’m delighted for him,’ Mark Collins says.
I met a man in Skibbereen late last summer who told me that Hurley was searching for a spark to ignite his third coming.
It just didn’t click for him in 2018. He was back but it wasn’t the Hurley of old. That was totally understandable considering what he went through. Mentally, he felt good. Physically, his body was telling him different. It wasn’t ready.
He needed a spark. Something to set him off. It didn’t happen.
People questioned if Hurley would ever hit the same heights as before the injury. Maybe he was finished at inter-county level. But that spurred him on.
‘People doubted me and said I wouldn’t make it back and that just gave me more appetite to drive on. There’s a determination I have in me, I’m not sure where it came from, maybe I was born with it, you just keep pushing yourself,’ Hurley told the Star before the Munster final.
He put the head down last winter. There was extra work. He leaned down by almost five kilogrammes. He’s lighter on top and the legs are moving better – and faster.
Hurley knows his own body better than anyone and, at 27, he’s a more mature player. Ten minutes into the second half in the Munster SFC semi-final against Limerick, he signalled to the bench that he was coming off. That’s the old head on young shoulders he talks about. He has come off in all three championship games this season. He’s not taking any chances. The management, the medical team and the player are being careful with his work-load. He needs to mind himself. And now he has three matches in four weeks.
‘It’s going to be a challenge the next few weeks with all the games coming but I think I have the work done early pre-season,’ he says.
‘I’ll be honest, I have an unbelievable medical team, they’ve put in some serious hours to look after me. I just have to do the extra bits to get the body sharp.’
He’s razor-sharp right now. The terrorised Laois defence will testify to that.
On the pitch in Thurles on Saturday after the match, I saw that same man I had met in Skibbereen. He was smiling. The spark has been lit. And there were fireworks.
Ronan McCarthy maintains Hurley’s absence from the Cork line-up from 2016 to, and realistically, the summer of 2019 was a ‘seismic loss’.
‘Every team should have one of him,’ McCarthy says.
‘Every night he comes in to training, you don’t want to mark him because you will earn it. He sets the standard for everybody and it’s great to have him back.
Hurley’s timing is impeccable too. He is another weapon in an attack that has found where the trigger is. Last year in the championship Cork scored 1-17, 2-4 and 0-13. This year they’ve racked up 3-18, 3-10 and 4-20. Cork carry a threat now. They’ve firepower. Moving Mark Collins inside to partner Hurley was a no-brainer. These two club-mates have an almost telepathic understanding. They can find each other. Like against Laois, they set up goals for one another. With Ruairi Deane’s kick passing inside ideal for Hurley to run on to, the gun is being loaded and the Haven man’s not missing much.
He’s back in Croke Park for a championship game this Saturday night for the first time since 2014. (He did play against Dublin there in the league in 2015). The last time Cork played a championship tie in Croke Park, in late July 2016, it was days before he went under the knife for surgery on his hamstring injury.
Three years later, Hurley is back playing on the biggest stage of all against, probably, the greatest football team of all time.
What a comeback. What a story.