BY DENIS HURLEY
CORK’S upcoming EirGrid Munster U21 FC campaign, which begins against either Tipperary or Limerick in Páirc Uí Rinn next Wednesday evening at 7.30pm, will be Seán O’Donoghue’s third in the grade.
The Inniscarra dual star, who played a key role from centre-forward as Seán Hayes’ side reached the All-Ireland final last year, losing to Mayo, has been named as captain for this year. While a torn quad muscle has hampered him in this year’s nascent stages, it is expected that he will once again be central to the Rebels’ hopes.
O’Donoghue played at minor in both codes in 2014 and – assuming he is chosen by the hurlers – will be a three-year dual U21. In fact, it is in the smaller ball that he has represented Cork at senior level, playing in the Waterford Crystal Cup in 2015 and that competition’s successor, the Co-op Superstores.ie Munster Hurling League, this January.
He might well have been more of a part of Kieran Kingston’s plans with the senior hurlers this spring but for being bestowed with the captaincy of the U21 footballers.
‘I’d have grown up playing hurling, it was always the way in Inniscarra,’ he says.
‘Even still, I’d probably have been more of a natural footballer with the athleticism involved, and it’s probably the main reason that I’m a forward in football and a back in hurling.
‘I’d still love to play hurling for Cork, but I felt that, having been named captain of the U21s, I had to give that the priority.
‘In fairness to Kieran Kingston, he said to focus on that and then we’d see where I was after the championship ends. I’d be hopeful that I haven’t missed my opportunity.’
For now though, the pressing matter is trying to lead Cork to what will be the last U21 championship before it is replaced by U20. Paradoxically, to do that means not thinking about it and just focusing on the immediate task at hand.
With all of his experience, O’Donoghue is more than aware of the pitfalls.
‘In 2015, we beat Limerick in the first match and then we beat Kerry in the Munster semi-final.
‘That put us into the Munster final against Tipperary but we were probably looking ahead to the All-Ireland semi-final rather than focusing properly and they beat us, we couldn’t have any complaints.
‘When we got together then at the start of last year, we were adamant that that wasn’t going to happen us again and I think you saw in the games against Clare and Waterford that we weren’t going to allow any complacency, we brought a huge intensity to both of those games and the fact that there was competition for places meant there was no let-up.
‘We need to have the same this year because it won’t be easy. It’d be very special to win the last U21 before the change, but you try not to think that way.’
O’Donoghue is a third-year commerce student in UCC, though he opted against playing in either the Fitzgibbon or Sigerson Cups this year so as not to over-burden himself.
Of last year’s panel, he is one of 12 still available to manager Hayes – the others are defenders John Mullins, Dylan Quinn, Kevin Flahive, Seán O’Leary of Bantry Blues, who can play at wing-back or midfield, Dohenys’ Eoin Lavers and in attack Castlehaven’s Michael Hurley, Cian Kiely, Brian Coakley, Stephen Sherlock, Dan Ó Duinnín and Seán Powter.
The manager himself is in his fifth year in charge, having a replaced Castlehaven’s John Cleary. In that period, Cork have won Munster on three occasions out of four, 2013, ’14 and ’16, though last year was the only final, with Cork’s last All-Ireland in 2009.
O’Donoghue is looking ahead with optimism, though.
‘Seán has been there with a good while, so he has been able to bring fellas through and know how they’ll fit in,’ he says.
‘There are a lot of us there since last year and we’re still hurting a bit since the All-Ireland final.
‘There were mistakes made that day, so I suppose you could say now that we know what not to do.
‘It’s just about doing things right from the start, beginning on Wednesday night.’