• Sport

U20 success has its roots in West Cork

Saturday, 10th August, 2019 1:00pm
U20 success has its roots in West Cork

The Cork U20 football team gathers together ahead of the throw-in to Saturday’s All-Ireland final against Dublin.

The day the Rebels roared

 

BY TOM LYONS

 

WHEN the half-time whistle blew at Portlaoise last Saturday, the Cork supporters rose to their feet and gave a rousing, spontaneous standing ovation to the Cork team coming off the pitch. 

The team was only two points in front of hot favourites Dublin and nothing had been won at that stage – but the nature and excitement of Cork’s performance in that first half was such that it had thrilled the hearts of the excited and appreciative Cork fans. 

As the Cork supporters cheered and clapped, the shell-shocked Dublin team made their way into the dressing room but not so the Cork team. Miracle-worker Keith Ricken gathered the players around him on the sideline and what words of wisdom did he part to them before heading for the break? He simply told them to stand and soak in the applause of the Cork supporters, to enjoy the feeling and to use that uplift in the second half to sweep to victory. Simple as that. The Cork fans were the 16th man, and woman, on this occasion.

Have no doubt about it, the road to this amazing win – forged from heart, courage, discipline and sheer guts – had its beginnings right here in West Cork when the decision was taken to bring the team west for training and matches. 

The first John Kerins’ league game was fixed for Clonakilty against the hot favourites for the Munster title, Kerry. It was a rare inter-county fixture west of the Viaduct. The West Cork supporters responded by turning out in force for that game and inspired the team to a well-deserved draw on the day. Those supporters got a first view of some outstanding emerging talent such as full forward Cathal O’Mahony.

Waterford’s unexpected defeat of Clare meant the first Munster U20 championship game was also in Clonakilty and an even bigger crowd created a great atmosphere as Cork hammered the Déise men. The Munster final against a vaunted Kerry outfit was one of those special days for Cork football that will long live in the memory, as everything went right for Cork and Kerry weren’t just beaten but demolished.

Training in Clonakilty, soaking in the spirit in the heartland of Cork football, didn’t do the cause any harm and the big test against Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final, the team’s first encounter with northern football, showed the real heart and spirit of this squad as they came from five points down, in serious trouble, early in the second half to fashion a wonderful two-point win, 2-17 to 1-18.

By this stage manager Keith Ricken was being looked at as a miracle-worker. Parachuted in late in January when existing manager Gene O’Driscoll stepped down, Ricken’s appointment proved a huge plus for the new-look Cork County Board, whose five-year plan for Cork football was suddenly looking like a six-month plan, with the beleaguered senior team also creating their own excitement in the Super 8s. 

In Ricken they found a man of deep integrity and belief in the development of the player as a whole person, not just a footballing cog in a machine. How the players have responded to his philosophy over the past six months has been shown in every game.

Nine points behind against Dublin in the All-Ireland final, the supporters were quiet for the first time but then came the transformation as Cork lashed in three goals in the space of six glorious minutes. Now the supporters were in full throttle. It’s not often we hear the chant ‘Rebels, Rebels, Rebels’ roared out at a Cork football match but we heard it on Saturday. There was no way Cork were going to be beaten after that as they outscored Dublin by ten points to two in the closing 20 minutes to continuous acclaim from the Rebel army.

The scenes at the final whistle were joyous and exhilarating. When was the last time we saw young Cork footballers crying for joy after a game, as we watched outstanding wing forward Colm O’Callaghan with tears streaming down his face and O’Mahony crying as he gave his man-of-the match interview. 

This team has truly put the heart and soul back into Cork football after all the gloom and doom of recent times and the sheer passion and delight of the supporters on the pitch afterwards was a sight to behold. What a huge boost going forward.

Our highlights of the game? Blake Murphy’s opening soccer goal was the game-changer but Mark Cronin’s second was a thing of beauty and a real contender for goal-of-the-year. Cathal O’Mahony’s pointed free from way out near the sideline showed that forwards’ coach, Colm O’Neill, is doing a great job.

Fionn Herlihy’s cheeky point from near the endline, what a super-sub he has proved to be. And what about Damien Gore’s three in a row that sealed the game, things of beauty from left and right with supreme footwork thrown in? We thrilled to the midfield workmanship of would-be hurler Brian Hartnett, whose heart is as big as his legendary uncle Pat, and Daniel O’Connell.

While we have been delighted by the skills of Cork’s natural forwards all season, and again on Saturday, we have to give due credit to the Cork defence, who, after such a nervous start, totally closed down the feared Dublin forwards. Michael Mahoney was outstanding at corner back, while full back, Clonakilty’s Maurice Shanley, showed his football pedigree with a top-class policing job on Dublin scoring hero Ciarán Archer.

As we said, we will always claim this football revival has its roots here in West Cork and it’s only fitting that the All-Ireland trophy headed for West Cork this week in the safe hands of Ilen Rovers’ man Peter O’Driscoll. The circle has indeed been closed back to Bantry’s legendary Donal Hunt, who brought the U21 cup to Cork for the very first time in 1970.