O'Connor trusted in Cork's maturity in Thurles
By Kevin Egan
Cork’s maturity and physical development was clear to see on the pitch yesterday afternoon in the oneills.com All-Ireland U-20HC final, and manager Ben O’Connor was happy to trust in that same sense of maturity and responsibility at half-time in FBD Semple Stadium, when he and his management team stepped back and let the players lead the planning of how they were going to respond to the fierce resistance offered by Offaly in the opening half of the final.
The Faithful County caused Cork plenty of problems in that opening 30 minutes, and with just two points between the sides at half-time, and the slight breeze set to favour the Leinster champions after the break, the contest, and the eventual destination of the James Nolan Cup, was right in the balance.
“At half-time, there were a lot of questions asked inside in that dressing room, and we left the boys at it themselves to sort it out,” said O’Connor afterwards.
“They said what they were going to do in the second half, and five minutes into the second half, they done exactly that. At the start of the second half we were two points up, then suddenly we were nine or ten points up and it was game over at that stage. We’re delighted the way the boys responded."
That trust in the players to iron out any problems for themselves has been well-earned. The Munster championship this year was incredibly competitive, and while Cork won all five games they played, four of them were by five points or less.
“We’ve had tight games all year, every game we finished strong, often coming from behind” O’Connor said.
“At half-time we said that if we were there with ten minutes to go, we were going to take it. The five of us in management, we’re there to accommodate them as best we can. That happens at training, that’s where our influence is, and we ask them to bring it to the game then, where it’s over to them.
“Their fitness levels were unreal and the hurling was very good as well when we upped the pace a bit. I’m delighted for those fellas, there’s 40 there and it’s very hard to cut it down to 24 on the day of a match. They’ve all put in a fierce effort since last October and now they’ve got their reward.
“The man that was driving it there was Mullins, he was outstanding. Eoin Downey stepped up, Ben O’Connor stepped up – I hate singling out players, but the big fellas stood up again today. We fired in five subs and they all added to it again. We’re delighted and you can see what it means, it’s a long time since there was an U-20 celebrated like that."
The victory ensured that the intercounty hurling season finished on a high for Cork, even though the Rebels can only stand by and watch as the race for the Liam MacCarthy Cup gathers pace in the coming weeks.
“I think we’ve 16 or 17 clubs involved, we’ve the whole county scoured for players. For Cork hurling, it’s great. I know we were beat last Sunday and we’re all disappointed that we’re out of the senior championship so early, but this is a stepping stone for these players and hopefully we’ll see them in the red, playing senior next year,” said O’Connor.
For Offaly manager Leo O’Connor, and many of his players, this was a second consecutive All-Ireland defeat, but he took consolation in the further development of many of his players, not to mention the incredible support that the team has received all through the year. Thousands of supporters greeted the team at St. Brendan’s Park in Birr last night, while in Thurles, tricolour flags and jerseys made up the lion’s share of the crowd of just under 30,000 supporters.
“The Offaly support has been absolutely phenomenal. You see the hunger that is there for this. And certainly we won’t go away, we’ll come back fighting,” said the Limerick native.
“There are 10 of the starting team today underage next year. Three or four more came on that will be there next year. In total, 27 are underage next year. It is positive.
“It is important we get back up to MacCarthy Cup level, that’s the most important thing. Two years in a row now we’ve had defeats that are very tough to take, but in terms of everything else, it’s hugely positive for us,” he continued.
“With 10 or 12 minutes to go, it was getting really tough out there. You saw the physical conditioning of the Cork boys. I know there are a lot of them underage again next year too, this is another stepping stone for Cork, just like it is for Offaly."