For the supporters in red and white it was a restoration of the natural order of the universe: an unknown teenager coming up to Thurles with class in his wrists and Cork in his attitude, and announcing himself to a national audience less than 12 months after sitting his Leaving cert.
Comparisons were made with 1999. Tipperary manager Michael Ryan said Cork were back. The word mushrooms was even mentioned.
It’s been a difficult journey for Cork to this point, so the hyperbole was understandable. Last year’s championship defeat by Tipperary was a low point, and falling to Wexford for the first time in half a century another marker of disappointment, particularly considering Waterford’s brisk dismissal of the Leinster side the next day out. The auguries for 2016 hadn’t been promising — Cork had smuggled a win out of Salthill in a relegation play-off against a weakened Galway, their only win of that league campaign — and they were duly borne out by the events of the summer.
Fast forward to 2017 and a change in climate. Cork finished second in a competitive Division 1A in the league, carrying that form through to last Sunday’s win against the All-Ireland champions.
How did that happen?
Beyond the celebration of Corkness, manager Kieran Kingston deserves huge credit for the changes on Leeside in the last 12 months. The Tracton man has been proactive and positive, and though some of his changes are less obvious than others, they need to be taken in conjunction with each other.
The clearest marker of Kingston’s regime change was the influx of new blood. When he took over there was one U21 on the panel, for instance. Now there are a dozen.
That’s where the lazy comparisons with 1999 fall down, incidentally: when Cork manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy started five debutants that season against Waterford, four of those players were 22-years-old and the fifth was 20; last Sunday Cork had a 20-year-old and three teenagers on the field at the throw-in.
In black and white it was a brave selection, but Kingston said after the game he and his selectors had picked players on form, not age, and former Cork star Joe Deane made a significant point in these pages last weekend on the same lines: “The (league) 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 — then you wouldn’t be fearful about them.”
It’s clear those new players don’t have years of rigorous strength and conditioning to draw on, but it was equally clear Cork finished the game stronger than their opponents, with credit going to physical coach Declan O’Sullivan, another Kingston appointment.
Cork have prepared their players well in other ways. There was some surprise that Kingston enlisted former director of the Irish Institute of Sport Gary Keegan to help the Cork hurlers late last year (though Keegan has previously worked with other intercounty teams), but his influence on Cork is clear.
Close observers credit Keegan with helping to create a performance culture among the younger players — one that Cork hope will prove self- perpetuating — in his one-on-one and group meetings, but his influence is equally marked on the management team. Many spectators in Thurles remarked on the Cork management leaving the players alone in the dressing-room for much of the half-time break as a marker of management’s confidence in the players — but it also indicated management’s confidence in themselves.
That confidence is boosted by another canny appointment by Kingston — introducing U21 manager John Meyler as a senior selector.
At the recent Munster championship launch another Cork selector, Diarmuid O’Sullivan, said of Meyler’s appointment that it would have been “ludicrous” not to appoint him, given the number of U21s on the senior panel, but how many senior county management teams create that link between senior and U21?
In addition, Meyler brings huge senior experience with the likes of Wexford and Kerry — experience missing from last year’s management team. He has also worked closely with John Considine on the promising cohort of underage players which recently won the Munster U17 title, so he brings a keen understanding of the talent filtering through on Leeside.
hat combination of factors — Keegan, Meyler and a dozen youthful voices — has energised Cork and created a matrix for progress, but there still plenty of potential issues ahead for them.
Privately this week, Cork acknowledged Tipperary’s issues coming into the game: Seamus Callanan’s lack of hurling after a broken thumb, the absence of ‘Bonner’ Maher and the distracting, draining furore over Jason Forde’s suspension. Tipperary’s relatively orthodox formation was also mentioned, particularly given Cork’s opponents in their next outing. Cork beat Waterford in the league this spring and Déise boss Derek McGrath, as good a judge as there is in the game, has long admired the potential of the Cork attack (after that match, McGrath said: “I think they (Cork) have the best sextet of forwards in the country. Kilkenny had four of their six on Saturday night (against Tipperary)… Tipperary have six too, but I think Cork’s six are as good as any.”
McGrath is unlikely to allow Cork the freedom to use their pace as freely as Tipperary did, and is also likely to ask more direct questions in his match-ups — Austin Gleeson spending some time on Mark Coleman is an obvious test McGrath could set.
There are also the matter of the physical demands on some of those younger players in particular as the weeks roll on. In baseball it’s common to see references to youngsters ‘wearing down’ with the physical stresses of a long debut season.
Cork’s U21s may also find freshness harder to find at senior level in high summer than they did last weekend, particularly if they are fighting a parallel U21 campaign. But Cork are certainly better than they were last year, and equally significant, they may have room to improve.