Cork U-20 footballers eye back to back EirGrid Munster titles
By John Harrington
The years following Cork's 2010 All-Ireland senior title were generally poor for football in the county, but it’s a long road that doesn’t turn.
The 2019 U-20 and minor All-Ireland triumphs provieded a much-needed morale-boost for the big-ball code in the county, and hinted at better things to come.
If the U-20s could follow up last year’s success by beating Kerry in Wednesday’s Munster Final, then Cork football’s renaissance would be really up and running.
This talented generation of Cork footballers were put in the shade at minor level by Kerry, but last year’s U-20 provincial final success and the All-Ireland titles that followed it have changed the dynamic between the two counties.
Until recently, Cork underage teams went out against Kerry in hope rather than expectation, but last year’s successes have instilled a new confidence.
"Yeah, definitely,” says Cork U-20 footballer, Mark Cronin.
“You look at the minors, we were fortunate that we had two teams win an All-Ireland.
“This year, while lads get on, we're very competitive and it's great to have that environment that we all know how to win games.
"I always think Cork has the footballers, no matter what age we are. It hasn't been working out for us for years but it's not due to a lack of talent.
“I think you look around the county and there's serious footballers. We've one of the most competitive county championships.
"It's just getting the right 15 together and being blended as a team.
“We're thankfully in the right direction but for the last couple of years, after a couple of losses, you do start to doubt yourself.
“It is very hard to get into the right direction but once you start, everything falls into place and then luck starts going your way."
The Cork U-20s are managed again this year by the highly regarded Keith Ricken, though he’d probably take umbrage with the term ‘managed’.
He’s a vocal advocate of a player-driven approach to coaching, and sees himself as a facilitator rather than someone who cracks the whip and demands players follow his every order.
His theory is that the players have to problem-solve once they cross those white-lines, so you’d better create a culture where the onus is on them to take the initiative themselves rather than constantly look to the sideline for direction.
As far as Cronin is concerned, it’s an approach that has empowered him and his team-mates.
"You have to take control of yourself,” says Cronin.
“I suppose if he's the one driving it, it won't last really. The players have to be 100%. He's very much 'you're your own man.' You decide what's best for you.
"If you want to be there you want to be there, if you don't you don't. There is a lot of craic. The training is serious but before and after it is great craic, it's very enjoyable."
"I suppose the best environments have that bit of relaxed environment about it. And you need that because the games have such tense build-ups to it that you need the bit of craic in training."
Wednesday March 4
EirGrid Munster U20 Football Championship Final
Kerry v Cork, Austin Stack Park, 7.30pm