On the basis of yesterday’s performance in damp and dusky Pairc Ui Chaoimh there is surely at least one more name about to be added to that pantheon of greats — Conor Lehane.
Sarsfields came into this final as title-holders, champions in three of the last five years, a host of experienced tried-and-trusted warriors. They hit the ground running too, a point after just 10 seconds from super-accurate county midfielder Daniel Kearney, a goal from another Cork panellist, the giant Michael Cussen four minutes later, putting them 1-2 to 0-2 clear by the fifth minute.
Even at this early stage, however, Lehane had already announced his presence, a fine catch, turn and lasered shot opening Midleton’s account in just the second minute. In the sixth minute he would embellish that point with his first green flag, his perfect positioning and searing pace seeing him race onto a breaking ball, giving Sars keeper Alan Kennedy no chance from close range.
Those scores though were only his intro. By the 20th minute the champions had again opened up a three-point lead, 1-7 to 1-4, courtesy of five points from placed balls (Cian McCarthy with four, wing-back Eanna Martin with a huge effort from inside his own half). But all on his own Lehane was keeping Midleton in touch, three points to go with his earlier 1-1. Now would come his second major and again it was down to good positioning, alone in front of keeper Kennedy to scoop home a long Paul Haughney centre, again tying the game.
He wasn’t done in this half, however, and (arguably) the best was yet to come. With Daniel Kearney again putting Sars in front, from his position on the left wing Lehane made a soaring catch of Tommy Wallace’s long puckout, made space for himself with a short dash to the middle before driving over from distance. A minute into injury-time he pointed a difficult ‘65 from wide on the right, then a minute later again possibly the score of the day, bringing down another huge Wallace puckout with a sublime bit of control then striking over the bar, all under the most severe pressure.
Those points saw Midleton lead at the break, 2-7 to 1-8, but with 2-6 to his name it was already the Lehane Show.
In the gathering gloom and the heavier rain the second-half wasn’t as glittering as the first; the excitement though was increasing, the tension mounting as two well-prepared, well-coached, well-matched sides went toe-to-toe for the remaining 30 minutes.
Time now for the respective defences to make their presence felt and though Aylwin Kearney had his hands full with Cussen, Patrick O’Mahony, Killian Burke, Seamus O’Farrell, Finbarr O’Mahony and the outstanding Jamie Nagle were winning their own individual battles for Midleton, while Haughney and Dowling were also going well in midfield.
The Sars half-back trio of Craig Leahy and Wexford duo Eoin Quigley and Eanna Martin were also doing very well, which, combined with the deteriorating conditions, meant scores were now much harder to come by.
Come they did though, two points initially for Sars, per Cussen and McCarthy, tying the game in the 34th minute. Any suggestion that Midleton were about to capitulate was rapidly undone, two points from Lehane restoring their half-time lead, and a fine point from the hard-working O’Farrell extending it to three. Again Sarsfields came back, Cussen with a fine catch off a long Quigley clearance, the pass to the supporting McCarthy, ball drilled through the Midleton net to leave it at 2-10 each by the 40th min.
For the next 13 minutes it was tit-for-tat, point-for-point, Lehane, captain Padraig O’Shea and corner-forward Brian ‘Bud’ Hartnett for Midleton, McCarthy (two frees) and Daniel Kearney for Sars, leaving it still tied with just six minutes to go (2-13 apiece). This was it, make-or-break time in Páirc Uí Chaoimh; it was Midleton who made it, Lehane and O’Farrell with the winning points, Sars eventually broken down. “Boys became men today,” said captain O’Shea; “When you have players like Conor Lehane, Luke O’Farrell, Aidan Ryan, Finbarr O’Mahony at centre-back, Peter Dowling with all his experience in Kilkenny — these fellas all stood up.”
That they did, but none stood out more than that man Lehane. What a performance, and what a win for the famed Magpies, puts them in the position now to do what those heroes of the 80s/90s did and go on to win Munster and the All-Ireland. Should they succeed, how many more will join that list of greats?
Scorers for Midleton: C Lehane 2-10 (two frees, one 65); L O’Farrell 0-3; B Hartnett and P O’Shea, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Sarsfields: C McCarthy 1-7 (six frees, one 65); M Cussen 1-1; D Kearney 0-3; G O’Loughlin, E Martin, 0-1 each.
MIDLETON: T Wallace; A Kearney, P O’Mahony, K Burke; S O’Farrell, F O’Mahony, J Nagle; P Haughney, P Dowling; P O’Shea (c), A Ryan, D Ryan; L O’Farrell, C Lehane, B Hartnett.
Subs: C Walsh for D Ryan (34).
SARSFIELDS: A Kennedy; R Ryan (c), J Barry, C O’Sullivan; G O’Kelly-Lynch, E Quigley, E Martin; D Kearney, E O’Sullivan; D Roche, C McCarthy, G O’Loughlin; K Murphy, R O’Driscoll, M Cussen.
Subs: C Leahy for O’Kelly-Lynch (inj. 22); T Óg Murphy for O’Driscoll (30). Blood: T Óg Murphy for Roche (15/17, 27/29); R Murphy for Roche (53/56).
Referee: C Lyons (Nemo Rangers).