No complaints, said a member of the Midleton backroom as he and his colleagues walked into the Páirc Uí Chaoimh tunnel yesterday, and a Cork senior hurling county final has rarely been summed up as succinctly.
The 10,214 in the stadium yesterday saw Imokilly retain their title in clinical fashion, putting challengers Midleton away with two goals in either half to emulate their predecessors of two decades ago with back to back titles.
The eastern division oozed quality and intercounty experience from every line, and though Midleton cut their lead to two points at one stage of the second half, the game was decided a long way from the final whistle.
A word before we really get started about the finalists/winners. The rumbling has been insistent, though at a varying level in volume, around Cork over the last couple of years about divisions and colleges participating in the senior championships, though a) the animus against colleges relates to one in particular and b) the animus against divisions relates to one in particular.
The issues with UCC’s participation in local competitions seem directly related to its status as an unofficial finishing school for Kerry footballers, and thus need not detain us long here.
As for the Imokilly hurlers, one of their players countered the argument for their exclusion before the final by pointing to the handful of titles annexed by all divisions, and the three in the Imokilly trophy cabinet in particular.
Their muted welcome onto the field yesterday was a persuasive argument that the Beast from the East remains respected rather than loved by the Cork hurling community, but that will hardly give the team pause.
(Interesting in that context to see the St Finbarr’s county title-winning side of 1993 honoured before the senior final. Also interesting to see: rugby legend Moss Finn, who was part of their backroom team on the day. The first rugby star applauded in the new Páirc?)
Anyhow, the national anthem had barely finished reverberating around the terraces before Imokilly had the game’s first goal.
It’s true to say that a terrible leg injury deprived Paudie O’Sullivan of the inter county career he might have had, but just as the punch is what a boxer loses last, the instinct for goal is slow to decay in a true forward. The odds favoured O’Sullivan when the ball broke to him inside the Midleton cover and he was never going to be panicked into wasting the chance, which he rolled calmly into the corner of the net.
It was the opener that Midleton would have wanted, and with Bill Cooper dominating the middle of the field for the divisional side they struggled to stay in touch, taking the first 11 minutes to hit their opening two points.
Conor Lehane found his range from frees and they began to motor, cutting the deficit to 1-4 to 0-4. (An aside: how difficult is it to strike frees into those bare, pale terraces for all players? The low autumn sun seemed to bleach the Blackrock End terrace in particular an off-putting light grey.)
Seamus Harnedy asserted himself at that point. The Imokilly captain scored his side’s second goal in the most traditional way possible, fielding a ball independently, careering sideways through the opposing defence and smashing the ball home.
Credit Midleton, they responded. A high, hanging delivery from Sean O’Leary Hayes deceived the Imokilly defence, but not corner-forward Patrick White. He obeyed the first law of any ball sport, keeping his eye on the sliotar above all else; his finish, given the tightness of the angle was very good, and helped his side to a 2-11 to 1-9 scoreline.
On the resumption Midleton captain Luke O’Farrell - who gave every ounce he had in the white and black cause - mangled a goal-scoring opportunity, and Lehane seemed to consider a shot on goal from a close-in free before taking his point.
Despite those misses, at 40 minutes O’Farrell cut the Imokilly lead to two, 2-12 to 1-13.
The divisional side then put down the rebellion without prejudice. A slight hesitation in the Midleton defence allowed Will Leahy to break the ball and Paudie O’Sullivan ambled through to finish, again, in the corner: his pulse hardly spiked in the process. Within two minutes Shane Hegarty made the space for a venomous shot to the net: 4-13 to 1-13 and almost 20 minutes left, but the white and red ribbons could be fixed to the cup.
Afterwards, Imokilly manager Fergal Condon agreed that the opening of the game in particular had gone exactly as he and the backroom team had hoped.
“Anyone looking at the game for the last few years would know that you wouldn’t want a ball like that (first goal) to fall to anyone only Paudie in a one one one situation. He’s proved it, that he’s a top class forward. “Overall I thought we got our match-ups right, that we were very smart in the way we played the ball out of defence, and we played well in patches. I think we had 2-9 from play by half-time, and any team in a senior hurling county final with that score got by half-time, they’ve set themselves up properly and have a great chance.”
Midleton’s second-half rally was cause for concern until the O’Sullivan-Hegarty double blow.
“There was good teamwork involved in those goals, we broke from defence and were economical with the ball. When Paudie got that ball - he’s a class, a great finisher. Shane got his just rewards too, in that he’s had a savage year with us. I also thought Ciarán O’Brien was outstanding today - people have to have a look at him, because no matter who he’s been on all year, he’s been able to do more than break even with them.
“Colm Barry at full-back - Cork are looking for people but they need to look outside the window and maybe break a few more panes of glass.
“As for the performance . . . we’ve built it up to what it is, 34 fellas trying to get onto the panel, and then onto the team. We had the luxury of Ger Millerick and Declan Dalton on the line when they’d be on most teams. But you have to earn our jersey as well. Everyone on the panel understand that, and we’ve had 120 or 130 games since 2015. We’re well used to patterns of play and adapting, and that came from experience.”
Condon’s last word is telling. Midleton showed plenty of promise but also made some errors you’d expect from a few players making their first appearance in a senior decider. The trip to take on Waterford champions Ballygunner in a fortnight could be another valuable learning experience.
Yesterday was Imokilly’s, however. And so was the season.