Young guns showed tremendous character in All-Ireland MFC success against Galway
OBVIOUSLY, with history being written by the winners, there is always a sense of inevitability when you look back at how a particular event panned out.
Right now, it seems like destiny’s hand was at play in shaping the year of the Cork minor footballers, but the conclusion – captain Conor Corbett lifting the Tom Markham Cup – was only achieved by taking the right options at numerous forks in the road.
Prior to the final, the Cork manager, Urhan native Bobbie O’Dwyer, had cited the fact that the team managed to win all of their must-win games as the ultimate endorsement of their temperament.
It might have seemed like an easy platitude to throw out but O’Dwyer doesn’t deal in such empty talk and, more importantly, he had been involved with the bulk of the side since U14 level. So, while he accepted that the 16-point loss to Kerry in Páirc Uí Rinn in May was a severe off-night, he preferred to point to the battling win over Clare in Ennis as a better guide to Cork’s capabilities.
However, even O’Dwyer must have felt that things were done when Galway’s Niall Cunningham crashed his shot to the net in the 63rd minute of Sunday’s final in Croke Park. Cork had battled valiantly and there was no disgrace in coming up short. Goalkeeper Cian O’Leary wasn’t having a bit of it, though.
In Cork footballing lore, the quick thinking of John Kerins against Kerry in 1987 is often cited as a key moment, the netminder reacting quickly after Mikey Sheehy’s goal had brought Billy Morgan to his knees. Cork forced a free, which Larry Tompkins converted and a replay win set a period of dominance in motion.
By the same token, O’Leary didn’t have time to feel sorry for himself or the team as he restarted play to ensure there was another chance. Michael O’Neill won possession and Hugh Murphy lofted the ball goalwards, towards Corbett, the focal point of the attack all afternoon.
Even then, there was a lot of work to do but the Clyda Rovers man won possession despite being outnumbered and then managed to net his shot to ensure extra time. When the need was at its absolute greatest, these Cork players – still only 16 and 17, let’s not forget – had produced the ultimate. That doesn’t happen by accident, but by constant, concentrated practice.
It was telling that, when congratulated, O’Dwyer praised the team and the backroom staff rather than hogging any limelight for himself. An excellent organiser, he put in place the perfect structure in which Cork could shine. As selector Mick Hannon put it: ‘I look after the defensive coaching, Ollie O’Sullivan looks after the midfield coaching, and James Masters and James McCarthy look after the forward coaching. We all have our roles to play. Bobbie binds everything together and ensures that everything is in order.’
The minor win, coming hot on the heels of the U20 victory last month, is proof that the future is bright and that the five-year plan for football in the county, unveiled in January to much sneering from elsewhere in the country, is not as fanciful as the critics might have thought.
Obviously, there is no guarantee that things will flow into senior level with ease, but there is no shortage of raw material with which to work.
One by-product of the win is that, for the first time ever, Cork have won senior, U21/U20 and minor football All-Irelands more recently than the equivalents in hurling. That is not necessarily a cause for alarm yet as the minor hurlers only missed a Munster final on scoring different this year and the county reached the last U21 hurling All-Ireland final in 2018 and the first U20 decider this year.
However, it’s a statistic that does give the lie to the notion that hurling is prioritised at Rebel Óg level. The work has been going in in football and the results are now there to be seen.
The hard part is to get the big wheel turning – once it’s motion, it’s just a case of keeping it revolving.