‘Dream comes true for Imokilly’ read the headline in The Examiner on Monday morning, October 6, 1997.
The previous day had been a red-letter one for the East Cork division, Fr O’Neills’ Brian O’Driscoll captaining Imokilly to a historic first Cork SHC title at Sarsfields’ expense.
“We’ve waited a long time to hold this baby,” Seán Barrett told reporters after the game, as he cradled the Seán Óg Murphy Cup on the bonnet of a car outside Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
The Carrigtwohill full-back was part of a team littered with future Cork stars such as Donal Óg Cusack, Mark Landers, Diarmuid O’Sullivan, and Timmy McCarthy.
Derek Barrett, a selector with the latest Imokilly side to stand on the brink of glory, was also there 20 years ago, the Cobh man lining out at midfield.
“I was only 21 at the time and it was an incredible feeling to win a Cork senior title, especially having lost the previous year’s decider to Avondhu after a replay. They really were fantastic times,” recalled Barrett.
Just four weeks after their 1-18 to 2-12 victory over Sars, Imokilly’s title defence suffered a major blow, with Cloyne winning promotion to the senior ranks. Ruled out for 1998 were Cusack, O’Sullivan and Maurice and Phil Cahill, almost one-third of the starting team.
Undeterred, Seanie O’Leary’s charges carefully negotiated each round, edging past Blackrock in a low- scoring decider — 1-10 to 1-5 — played in front of 9,000 people.
“Losing the Cloyne lads absolutely made ’98 more difficult, but we were fortunate that we all had the same goal: Each one of us wanted to get over the line and get another county senior medal. We had a lot of solid lads, like Jimmy Smiddy (Castlemartyr) and Willie O’Riordan (Castlelyons).
“We improved again in ’98 and beat a Rockies team that had Jim Cashman, a player I idolised growing up. They also had Alan Browne, Fergal Ryan, and Wayne Sherlock [the latter pair will also be on the line on Sunday). You’re thinking: ‘This is great, we might get here every year.’ Unfortunately, that is not the way it transpired. We only got to one more final. That was 2001, where we lost to Blackrock. I stepped away the year after.”
Barrett, who joined Fergal Condon’s backroom team ahead of the 2016 season, sees similarities between this group and the East Cork men he soldiered with in the late nineties and early noughties.
“They are hungry, they back each other up. There is a growing bond, especially with the last four matches being run off each weekend. They have, basically, been living with one another for the past five weeks.
“We’ve played 23 games this year and we’ve always had 22, 23 or 24 for challenge matches. That’s good going when you consider all these lads have club commitments. You might not have had your strongest lads, but you always had lads who were willing to put on the jersey and give it a right go.”
Barrett, a sub on the all-conquering Cork team of ’99, continued: “The divisional side was the only way I could win a Cork SHC medal and that is exactly what I wanted to do. Of course, I would have loved to have done it with Cobh. We couldn’t get up senior. Imokilly is where you wanted to be the first weekend of October and playing in a Cork final.
“We are stressing to the players that when you get a big day like this, you go out and perform. Some of them might get another opportunity, some of them might not. You don’t know and, so, you have to grab it with both hands.”
Representing Cobh on the current team is Kieran Histon, the corner-back having been part of the Cork U21 football side which reached last year’s All-Ireland final. The build-up to Sunday, according to Barrett, is just as noticeable in the coastal town as it is in Cloyne, Castlemartyr or Castlelyons.
“As well as Kieran, Dara Kelleher and Cian Spriggs are part of the panel. It gives them a bit of experience and, hopefully, they’ll be able to bring that back to the club. There’s a lot of good hurling people in Cobh. It is just a small club in a big town. My phone is hoping all week from well-wishers.”
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