Joe Deane was that soldier. In 1995 he starred on Cork’s All-Ireland-winning minor side and the reward was a move upstairs. The senior team.
“Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who’d managed us as minors, took over the seniors and he brought a few of us onto the selection,” recalls Deane.
“All of a sudden we were playing in the national league before Christmas — you were talking October-November, heavy fields, a slower pace, so making your debut in those circumstances was OK. I think the Kerry game was my first one.”
After Christmas that changed, he says.
“We had three tough games in the league that spring, including against Clare, who were All-Ireland champions at that stage.
“These guys were at the height of their powers physically, skill-wise, all of that,” says Deane.
“Brian Lohan, Frank Lohan, these guys were all at their peak, and after 20 minutes I was blown away, basically. In fairness to Jimmy, he waited until half-time to take me off, but he could have done that a lot earlier.”
Deane wasn’t the only graduate to find the air thin at that altitude.
Years later, in his autobiography, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín would recall the challenge of marking elite forwards that same season: “I made my debut against Tipperary down in Páirc Uí Rinn in 1996, the first game back after the Christmas. Christy Connery from my own club was the other corner-back and I switched with him, ending up on Michael Cleary.
"Cleary gave me an absolute lesson. I was chasing shadows: He wasn’t a big imposing player, but his reading of the game was years ahead of me. You can talk about senior intercounty, you can get the best advice from the best players, but it doesn’t count for anything until you experience it yourself. And it is an experience. You think you’re going well, but your first couple of games bring you down to earth. Hard.”
Deane recalls the backing of the manager at that time: “It was great to have Jimmy show he had confidence with you. Come the summer we were playing Limerick in the championship, and you didn’t know what to expect, but it was a huge step up. Huge.”
Limerick were a seasoned side, close to an All-Ireland title. September was their destination, and Cork didn’t provide much of a detour.
“I was on Stephen McDonagh,” says Deane. “A fantastic corner-back, hard but very fair. I won the first couple of balls that came our way but I had a bad wide, and then the game passed me by. I couldn’t get into it, and physically I wasn’t able to compete. At that stage you don’t have the tools mentally to keep yourself going when you don’t get a touch for a while. You’re struggling and you can’t break out of it.
“It was a difficult day at the office for all concerned, players, management, and supporters, but it made people realise it was going to take time. Very few players come in at inter-county level at 19 and play fantastically well from the start. There are the odd exceptions but it’s rare enough.”
Ó hAilpín had an equally challenging day: “I came on in the second half. Championship debut. I picked up Mossy Carroll, who welcomed me to the Munster championship with the butt of the hurley into the ribs.
“He winded me: I wanted to turn around but I couldn’t, physically, and I didn’t want to show any weakness. So Mossy came around to have a good look at me. Big smile on his face, the white gumshield gleaming, and the expression said, ‘now boyeen, how’s that suit you?’”
Deane points out that the straight knockout format then in operation didn’t give young players much chance to gain experience. “It meant you had one game a year for two or three years, and that gave you very little chance to get used to the intensity. What helped us was that even though the seniors weren’t going well, we were having long campaigns at U21 level, winning All- Irelands, so we were able to mature at that level and to become ready for senior inter-county championship. Playing in the Fitzgibbon Cup was crucial there as well.
“But it took us those couple of years to get up to the physicality and the pace. We were beaten by Clare in 1997 and 1998, and it took those of us who’d come in at that time until 1999 to be anyway comfortable at the top level.”
There are subtle differences nowadays, says the Killeagh man. Players are better prepared for the top flight. “One point is that a lot of newer players coming into the senior inter-county scene now are more developed physically than we were at the same age. Another significant difference is the competitiveness of the league. Back in our day, certainly starting out, there was a huge difference between the league and the championship in terms of pace, physicality, commitment. In the pre-Christmas games particularly, some lads would be going through the motions, and it was often a matter of ‘where are we going after the match’, it was almost a night out.
“Coming into March and April some players would still be playing themselves back into condition: lads would come back after Christmas carrying weight, myself included, and you’d have to lose that weight in the spring. That doesn’t happen anymore, players are in very good condition more or less all year round.
“It’s different now in terms of the games themselves in the league too. The games are not that much below championship pace, particularly towards the latter end of the league when relegation and play-off places begin to matter. Because of that, if a player can compete well in the league — and a lot of the younger Cork players have done that — then you wouldn’t be fearful about them tomorrow.”
Deane cautions Rebel fans about expectations of those youngsters. “Being realistic, if these guys can hold their own it’ll be a good day’s work. For forwards, chipping in with a point or two and being able to say afterwards, ‘I competed at this level and did my best’ — that’s a good day’s work.
“Man of the match performances shouldn’t be an expectation. Getting an honest performance for as long as you can — that is (an expectation).
“It’s an obvious point, but every player’s debut is different. If Cork win, that’s great for the new players. If they don’t — in our time, the 1996 game was nearly one you’d want to forget pretty quickly. You wanted the attitude, ‘well, my debut is now over, that pressure is gone — next year will be a bit better, hopefully’. And it was a bit better, there was progress.”
- Anthony Daly recalls the magic of a Munster championship childhood and looks ahead to the big game.
- John Fogarty assesses all the weekend's matches.
- We hear from Tipperary manager Michael Ryan on why the Premier have been hyped too much.
- And Munster Council chairman Jerry O'Sullivan on the future of the provincial championships.