Cork will face an Offaly crowd ‘ravenous for success’
By Kevin Egan
For a variety of reasons, the Offaly’s 2020 minor hurling championship campaign was very difficult to assess. The presence of Covid meant that the team played a first round in October of 2020, the quarter and semi-finals in December, and then the Leinster final the following July.
On paper, Offaly were one of the last three teams standing in the race for the All-Ireland that year, but a run of wins over Laois, Kildare and Westmeath didn’t really capture the imagination, despite all games going Offaly’s way by a comfortable margin. Then, when the standard was raised in the Leinster final, that game in Portlaoise was over before it began as Kilkenny rushed out to a 1-10 to 0-1 lead, en route to a 2-21 to 3-9 victory.
Leo O’Connor was the manager of that team, though the county and the country only sat up and took notice of the Limerick native’s talent when he guided the 2022 minors to that fateful All-Ireland decider in Nowlan Park last year. After making the step up to take on the U-20 job for 2023, he knew at the start of this year’s campaign that while many people felt that 2024 and 2025 would be the big years for Offaly at U-20 level, he saw boundless potential in the campaign that has since unfolded.
“This is a combination of three years of minor teams. We have been in two Leinster minor hurling finals in a three-year period. Without pre-empting anything, when you look at minus Joe Hoctor next year, minus Cormac Egan, Sam Bourke, Charlie Mitchell, we have players that are on a senior panel at the moment and playing U-20,” he said.
“Next year we will have a different set. Overall, when you look at the balance of the whole set-up, you need that little bit of strength, so I just think that everybody would think next year will be the peak year, but yet that is the team that never got to a Leinster final. It was beaten in a semi-final. When you get to this stage, you have to take your chances.”
Selling the idea that this campaign might be the best chance for success of them all wasn’t simple, as a tier two round robin group had to be negotiated before anyone could start thinking about shooting at bigger game like Galway, Dublin, and Wexford.
“We didn’t take any chances against Westmeath because Westmeath had turned over Dublin at minor. We played Charlie Mitchell, he got 2-3 and we got over the line by nine or 10 points. Against Meath, we made a few changes and we did the exact same thing against Kildare as well, on the basis that we knew we had the strength and depth on the bench. If we needed it, we could unleash it.
“Overall, the hardest part about that was the frustration of the players because when the players are young, they don’t realise, they think they are being dropped.”
For all that, there was always optimism within the group, heightened by the success of the combined Offaly schools’ team in the Leinster Schools SH ‘A’ championship.
“Winning it gave us more experience,” said O’Connor. “We played two Wexford teams, two Dublin teams, then beat St. Kieran’s in the final. We were learning the whole time as we went through it. Then, when you bring back in the 19 and 20-year-olds back into the squad, that’s a major plus.”
That Corn Uí Dhúill final at Nowlan Park in February was the first game this year where a large crowd travelled to support the group, and between that, and the 2022 minor campaign, these players have grown used to playing in front of uncharacteristically large audiences for underage hurling.
“One or two of the older lads wouldn’t have experienced the run to last year’s All-Ireland minor final and playing in front of big crowds. The colleges run gave them extra confidence and extra push to get to where we are,” O’Connor said.
“We saw it in 2021 when the 2020 Leinster final was played, there was a fine crowd that day in Portlaoise. That is all experience. The lads weren’t afraid going out taking on the Kilkennys or the Galway or Dublins of the world this year.
“We have certainly got a very unique support, it’s been massive. When you look back on the Leinster final last year in Portlaoise - that was so unique. I see the Munster minor final this year with two or three thousand people at it. Eight hundred people at All-Ireland semi-finals this year. We had eight or nine thousand last year below for ourselves and Clare.
“I will give the Offaly people one thing; I have never, ever experienced what I experienced in O’Moore Park last year and what I experienced below in Dr Cullen Park this year. It was the Romans in old times; the players running out onto the field and the crowd in around you. I remember when Phil Bennis was manager of the Limerick minor team with me and U21, and we were bringing Cork out to Bruff. We felt it encompassed the whole thing. That is where we thrived.”
Some argued that the decision to delay the U-20 final, bringing with it Thurles as the venue instead of Croke Park, won’t suit Offaly. O’Connor feels differently, even more so in the light of the news that both stands have sold out, and that the contest is heading for full capacity.
“Dare I say it but I think the Cork players are going to experience something very, very different. They are going to be running out in front of an Offaly crowd that are ravenous for success. There’s been 20 years of unsuccessful teams. There’s been good days in the middle of all that, but in terms of the hurling world, I just think it is very unique up here at the moment. It’s something I’ll never forget and I’ve experienced a lot over the years.”
O’Connor is bracing himself for another incredible experience this Sunday. The only difference is that, unlike most of us, he saw it coming.