Colin English has been something of a late convert to hurling. Football was foremost among his priorities for much of his teens, yet now the former minor star is one hour away from captaining Tipperary to a first All-Ireland U21 hurling crown in eight years.
Three years ago, Tipperary reached the All-Ireland minor hurling final. English, a product of the Fr Sheehy’s club in South Tipperary football heartland, wasn’t part of the team or, indeed, the match-day 26. Instead, he’d appear at Croke Park two weeks later, half-forward on the minor football side well beaten by Kerry in the decider.
The following season, Liam Cahill, then serving as minor hurling boss, controversially ruled out including any dual players from his squad.
Players were given a choice to either concentrate on hurling or football. English initially opted for the big ball, but when the minor footballers’ campaign came to an end in mid-April, he was quickly drafted into the hurling set-up.
He was withdrawn 27 minutes into his championship debut — their Munster semi-final win away to Cork — but come the All-Ireland final, he’d contribute four points from play during the win over Limerick.
“I went in with Liam in 2016 and fell in love with the game. Hurling has been number one since,” said English.
“My background would have been football coming up along. I wouldn’t have played a massive amount of hurling. It wasn’t until 2016 that the opportunity came to link up with Liam and the hurlers. We had a fantastic win in 2016. There was a fantastic panel and that panel has stuck together."
English agrees Cahill’s dual player ban, in hindsight, was the right move.
“Tipperary lost both minor finals in 2015, so the dual ban might not have been popular, but was proven to be justified. I started out 2016 with the footballers.
The Tipperary U21 captain didn’t last the course on the evening of their Munster final trouncing to Cork last month, called ashore on the three-quarter hour mark. The pain of that loss still lingers.
“We are looking for massive redemption. We were devastated with the way we went that night. We feel we didn’t justify our potential or our preparation. We are looking forward to doing that on Sunday."
Brian McGrath was another who played on that Tipperary minor football team three years ago, the younger brother of Noel and John lining out at corner-forward during the defeat to Kerry.
However, when push came to shove the following year, the youngest of the Loughmore-Castleiney McGrath clan opted for the small ball. The full-back is more than content for Cork to wear the tag of raging hot-favourites ahead of this weekend’s battle.
“There is nothing better than going in when people might be writing you off, or whatever,” said McGrath.
“You can come in under the radar and then the fight in you just comes out and that brings out the best in people.
Centre-forward Paudie Feehan says the team were “blessed” to have the opportunity to salvage their season after the Munster final nightmare.
He reasoned: “It was great. We got a second chance to re-group. There is a lot of honesty within the lads and a lot of guys put their hands up and said where it went wrong. We pulled together as a group and did our best to fix it,” said the Killenaule hurler.
“We were at sea that day. We just didn’t perform at all. Cork are a great side, obviously, but there was a lot of it down to us. We were just flat on the night and nothing stuck for us. It was just a bad night for everyone."
More so than achieving redemption, Feehan sees it as imperative that they have something tangible to show for their year’s work come 7pm on Sunday evening.
“We have had two good wins in this campaign and we have nothing to show for it so far. We just want to have something to show for it."