Former Cork footballer Colm O’Neill sees no reason why five or six of the county’s All-Ireland U20 winning team can’t make the step up to senior level in 2020. A selector in Keith Ricken’s backroom team, O’Neill is fully aware that the real value of Saturday’s come-from-behind win will be the ability of these emerging footballers to successfully transition to senior level in the years ahead.
O’Neill is himself a perfect example of what an All-Ireland U20 (formerly U21) title can pave the way for, the Ballyclough man winning All-Ireland U21 medals in 2007 and 2009 before landing the ultimate prize in September 2010.
From the starting team which delivered that latter victory, Michael Shields, Eoin Cadogan, Ray Carey, Fintan Goold, Paul Kerrigan, Daniel Goulding, Ciarán Sheehan, and Aidan Walsh had tasted All-Ireland U21 success before making the step up and establishing themselves in Conor Counihan’s senior set-up.
Galway reaped a fine harvest from their 2013 U21 final win over Cork, with Tom Flynn, Fiontán Ó Curraoin, Damien Comer, Shane Walsh, and Ian Burke now backboning the county’s senior outfit, while a year later, Dublin achieved All-Ireland U21 glory with a team which contained Davy Byrne, John Small, Jack McCaffrey, Brian Fenton, Niall Scully, Paul Mannion, and Cormac Costello.
O’Neill is confident there are at least six footballers from this latest all-conquering U20 class who can progress up and play their part in the ongoing revival of Cork football.
All you need every year is for four or five to be pushing onto the senior panel. And if one or two can break into the starting team, super. It is no secret that that’s a key part of success at senior level. Dublin have been doing it the last few years.
"Kerry have minor winners who have already transitioned up to senior. There is nothing stopping these Cork lads from pushing on,” said O’Neill.
“These Cork players have the right attributes. The ingredients are there, they are good footballers. Keith has done a fine job in getting them mentally prepared and them actually growing up, maturing, and making the right decisions on the pitch. Physicality wise and in terms of the pace of football, senior is a step up. But there is no reason why five or six of them can’t make the step up into Ronan’s squad and drive the seniors on. I trust they will make the step up.”
With Saturday’s 3-16 to 1-14 victory over Dublin delivering Cork a first All-Ireland football title, across minor, U20/21, and senior, since 2010, O’Neill didn’t need to be told how significant a result it was.
“Overall, it is hard to say that Cork is going to be back after this, but it definitely bodes well for the future. There are players in the county so, hopefully, they can take it on for the next few years.
“For this group of players, they’ll take great confidence from winning an All-Ireland. For a lot of that team, this is their first year ever playing with Cork.”
He continued: “Our opening had to be down to nerves. Blake Murphy and Mark Cronin’s goals were crucial to stem the flow and get us back in contention. It was nothing we did on the sideline. It was the lads figuring it out for themselves, as they have been doing all year.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in Cork teams, but I’ve never seen anything like the reception they got going off at half-time. It was absolutely incredible. They are a great group, privileged to be involved with them, and delighted for them.
“Delighted, too, that the wheel is turning for Cork football. The seniors made the Super 8s and the minors have been putting in fierce work. We have been getting caught at that grade in recent years, losing Munster semi-finals to Kerry teams who were going on to win All-Irelands. Whereas now, Cork got to the Munster final, and even though they didn’t win, they’re training and playing into the summer.”