Cork hope that All-Ireland underage football progress can be a springboard to brighter future

IF ENNIS WAS the setting for their low point this year, then it was also the location for something more promising.

As the spring of sorrow for the Cork footballers unfolded, Cusack Park on 10 February was the game which plunged them firmly into a relegation battle. The nine-point loss to Clare that day was a product of a vastly inferior performance.

Cork did mount a recovery in winning two of their last three league games but Ennis was the site of their heaviest defeat of the campaign and left them facing an uphill task thereafter, relegation to the third tier confirmed by the end of March.

Yet the Clare venue also transpired to have a different impact in shaping Cork’s 2019 football fortunes. Just over three months after that senior loss, the county’s minor side pitched up on 15 May for a pivotal Munster play-off. They departed with a four-point win over Clare that night and suddenly their whole season swerved off on another course.

On Sunday Cork will be one of the last two minor sides standing in the country, contesting with Galway for the Tom Markham Cup. August has already yielded one All-Ireland crown after the U20 side staged a remarkable final comeback against Dublin.

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Now there is a chance for a national underage football double, something Cork have only achieved in the same year once before back in 1981. With the senior side qualifying for the Super 8s, all three Cork teams were still in championship action up until this month. After a wave of disappointments and setbacks in recent years, it all adds up to a more positive outlook.

Cork players celebrate their Munster U20 football title win.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

For a succession of Cork minor sides, participation in the advanced stages of the championship has been beyond them in recent times. That was partly due to a tricky system and partly due to collisions with a series of top-class sides that Kerry churned out. From 2014-18 Cork lost out every season in Munster at minor level to a Kingdom outfit.

There was little complaint when they were soundly beaten by a David Clifford-inspired side in 2017, while 2014 and 2016 final losses preceded All-Ireland quarter-final exits. The 2015 and 2018 defeats were the sources of frustration, teams of good potential losing out by a single point in early May and seeing their season end due to the lack of a second chance.

A shift in structure in Munster this year installed two round-robin series which enabled Cork to capitalise. It meant after being thrashed in April by 16 points against Kerry, they defeated Clare to get their campaign back up and running. The gap had closed to three by the time they renewed acquaintances with Kerry in the Munster final.

Since then the benefits of prolonged exposure to collective training and top-level games have been demonstrated. Cork have taken care of Ulster champions Monaghan and Connacht winners Mayo, just like opponents Galway have defeated the Leinster and Munster title holders. A third of the Cork starting team has been altered since their seasonal opener and they’ve booked the county’s first All-Ireland minor final spot in nine years while chasing a first title since the class of 2000 that featured James Masters and Noel O’Leary.

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James Masters captained Cork to the 2000 All-Ireland minor football title.

Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

Similar to the U20 side, the Cork minor team have showcased a strong capability to score in attack. They’ve hit 13 goals in their five games to date, running up totals of 3-19 and 4-12 in the All-Ireland series. Captain Conor Corbett (3-15), Patrick Campbell (2-12), Ryan O’Donovan (1-16) and Michael O’Neill (1-7) have all been to the fore.

Their U20 counterparts struck 13 goals in the four ties en route to All-Ireland glory and averaged 3-18 per match. Cathal O’Mahony (2-20) and Mark Cronin (3-13) were their principal marksmen with support at key stages from Damien Gore (1-7) and Blake Murphy (2-4).

Cork U20 manager Keith Ricken assembled a strong backroom team around him and they duly prospered, casting the net wide for players. 20 different clubs were represented in that final win over Dublin with six of the starting side having never played for Cork in the minor grade, graduating through good form at club and colleges level.

Minor boss Bobby O’Dwyer is at the head of a structure that trawled the county in a similar fashion for players. 18 different clubs are set to supply members of Sunday’s match-day squad with seven of them operating at junior level from a range of Buttevant in the north of the county to Urhan in the western Beara peninsula. 

Cork minor manager Bobby O’Dwyer.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The Cork minor management were in place last year and always felt an extended campaign would lead to a natural improvement in their play. That view has been bolstered by the development of the team this summer.

Cork have seen promising underage sides come and go before. The trick as always is to limit the number that slip through the cracks as they move up to higher levels. May’s appointment of Conor Counihan as Project Co-ordinator for football and the news this week that Aidan O’Connell is coming on board in the county as High Performance Director, a role encompassing both codes, are both positive in embracing that challenge and mapping out a pathway for players.

Cork’s fall in the football rankings has been steep since the start of this decade and that’s left them with a considerable road to travel to try to challenge the senior elite again. Contesting the Super 8s was a positive but results went against them and they’ll be starting out on their 2020 journey in Division 3.

Yet the last couple of months have shown there are raw materials to work with and underage talents to be harnessed over the next few years.

Another piece of national silverware on Sunday would be a boost but the real test is to use the promise of 2019 as a springboard for the future.

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