Brian Hartnett is your quintessential late bloomer.
The Douglas youngster was never part of any Cork development squad, neither did he get a look in with the county minors two years ago.
Would you believe, he couldn’t even make the club team at U15, U16 or in his first year at minor.
And yet for all of that, Brian Hartnett will line out at midfield for the Cork U20 footballers this afternoon, bidding to add an All-Ireland medal to the piece of Munster silverware pocketed last month.
Chatting to Hartnett upstairs in the Páirc Uí Rinn pavilion, we made a mistake in not asking him his height. Mind you, it wouldn’t take a measuring tape to establish that he easily climbs to at least six foot.
He wasn’t always this tall and it was the growth spurt he enjoyed two years ago which transformed his underage career.
“I grew about five inches in a year. The legs got a bit longer and I got a bit stronger too,” he explained.
Growing up, his parents, Michael and Caroline, the latter still lines out at full-back for the Nemo ladies juniors, routinely told him to focus on mastering the skills of the game and that everything else would take care of itself.
They were, in the end, proven right, but patience was required in waiting for the wheel to eventually turn in his favour.
“I prioritised hurling growing up, I preferred it too (uncles Pat and John won All-Ireland medals with Cork). I was full-back for our U14 football team which made the county Féile final, but I missed the final as I was on a skiing holiday. In the years after that, I wasn’t making the team. I was a sub at U15, U16, and my first year at minor. I didn’t make the first team with the club until second-year minor. I was a late developer.
“I was very slow back then, not that I’m unbelievably fast now, and I wasn’t very strong either.
The wheel turned when I was 17, during my fifth year in school, that’s when I grew.
“I started playing better. I prefer football at the moment because I feel I can be more dominant in a football match, as opposed to hurling, especially around the middle of the pitch. In hurling, it can bypass you, and when you do get on the ball, I’d just lump it up the pitch. In football, I like to get on the ball as much as possible and bring others into the game.”
Mick Evans put him in at midfield on the Douglas senior team last year and that elevation played a significant role in his decision to opt for the big ball, rather than the sliotar, when it came to deciding which UCC freshers team he’d focus on last autumn and winter.
“I’d a good run in midfield with Douglas in the senior championship. I felt I had done well enough, whereas I didn’t make the senior hurling team, so I said I’d try and push on in one code.”
That, in turn, paved the way for a very first Cork call-up.
“I knew I had a chance because having played against some of the lads that had been on Cork panels in recent years, I felt I was near enough to the standard. Starting for your club at senior level is a big achievement. Playing freshers is a big stepping stone too. You make friends with all the Kerry lads and you become a better footballer that way.”
At no point in the last seven months, said Hartnett, did he feel in any way disadvantaged or behind the curve in having no previous involvement with a Cork development squad or minor set-up. Solid foundations they provide, of course, but not essential, as Hartnett and others before him have proved, in being able to thread water when thrown straight in at the deep end.
“The only thing is that you wouldn’t know a lot of the lads when you come in first. But playing with UCC freshers helped in that respect. A lot of lads in our set-up like Eanna O’Hanlon, Michael Mahoney, Dan O’Connell, they never made a Cork panel. It’s like Seamus Harnedy with the Cork hurlers, it’s never too late to make a Cork team.”
The change in U20 management at the beginning of the year meant his wasn’t the most seamless of introductions to inter-county level. Following Gene O’Driscoll’s departure, GDA’s such as James McCarthy took over the training of the team while the county board went about filling the vacancy. The numbers showing up at the 4G pitch adjacent to Páirc Uí Chaoimh during those uncertain few weeks was in and around the 20 mark, hardly indicative of a side that would go on to thump Kerry by 13 points.
“We didn’t know what was happening,” Hartnett recalls. “Thankfully, Keith decided to come on board and we haven’t looked back since. We knew straight away we’d a good manager. He’s an air about him that you soak up everything he says. Then he brought in such a good backroom team so you knew you were on to something good.
“Keith makes it very simple. He says, if you put in the right ingredients, you’re going to get the right meal. That is the ethos of the team.
“We put in the hard work, the graft, and then we can play the football we want to play. We work hard for each other.
“Saturday is a big day for Cork. Some of the injuries I had after the Tyrone game were from people slapping me on the back! It was great seeing the emotion and smiles on the faces of the parents, families, and friends who supported us throughout.
“Hopefully, we can bring back some All-Ireland silverware to Cork now.”