Stepping Stone: How Cork U21 teams have backboned senior success

This evening, Cork’s under-20 hurlers will finally get the opportunity to end a twenty-year famine at underage level and claim their first under-20/21 title since 1998. They will enter into the game as heavy favourites, after Dublin, who have never won a national title at this grade, surprised Galway in the Leinster Final two weeks ago. While a victory for Cork would undoubtedly be welcomed with open arms, especially in the wake of consecutive decider defeats in ’18 and ’19, the true success of this particular crop of talented hurlers won’t become apparent for years to come.

Limerick famously failed to capitalize on their three-in-a-row of under-21 titles between 1999 and 2001. Similarly, only a handful of players from Tipperary’s three-in-a-row winning sides from ’78 to ’81 were left standing by the time Tipperary ended their eighteen-year barren spell at senior level in 1989. Discounting the most recent finalists in 2018 and ‘19, Cork have reached the final on thirteen other occasions (winning eleven) since the competition’s inception in 1964. Unlike the examples of Limerick and Tipperary as outlined above, each side has been backboned by future Munster and All-Ireland medalists at senior grade.

Cork’s maiden final appearance occurred in 1966, where after two replays, they defeated Wexford on a scoreline of 9-9 to 5-9. Of the fifteen that started the second replay, a total of nine players would go on to represent Cork at senior level, including luminaries such as Denis Coughlan, Gerald McCarthy and Charlie McCarthy, as well as some lesser-known Cork senior hurlers like Ballyhea’s Jack Russell and Glen Rover’s Andrew O’Flynn, who between them managed only three championship appearances.

1966 All-Ireland U21 winning team

Two years later, a Cork side containing six Blackrock players, including Ray Cummins, Pat Moylan and Frank Norberg, defeated Kilkenny by six points to claim their second title. Interestingly however, while eight of that side went on to play senior championship hurling for Cork, neither of their scorers-in-chief that day, Bernie Meade of Passage (1-12) and Brian Dillons’ Peter Curley (1-2), progressed their inter-county careers to senior level.

The 1968 triumph proved to be the first of four-consecutive u-21 championships for Cork as they continued to dominate the fledgling competition. Those sides provided the nucleus of Cork’s famous three-in-a-row winning teams of the ‘70’s, among them Brian Murphy, John Horgan, Pat McDonnell, Seanie O’Leary and Martin Coleman. The 1971 iteration could arguably be recognised as the greatest under-21 side of all time, with the starting fifteen that defeated Wexford in the final amassing 200 senior championship appearances between them and twenty-five Celtic Crosses.

1968 All-Ireland U-21 winning team

In 1975, Kilkenny defeated Cork on a scoreline of 5-13 to 2-19 at Fraher Field in the u-21 decider. As always, the Cork side featured a number of players that became household names, among them John Fenton and Jimmy Barry Murphy. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the scoreline, only one of Cork’s back-seven that day, Bishopstown’s John Crowley would advance to the senior ranks. Ironically, a year later when Cork exacted their revenge on Kilkenny, conceding only 1-08 in the process, only one of their back-seven, Glen Rover’s Bill Geaney, ended his career without a senior championship appearance for Cork.

1971 All-Ireland U-21 winning team

Cork’s stranglehold on the competition waned in the ‘80’s. They defeated Galway in the ’82 final but only four of the starting fifteen, Ger Cunningham, Kevin Hennessy, Tony O’Sullivan and Tomás Mulcahy went on to make more that ten senior championship appearances for Cork. Similarly in ’88, of the team that bested Kilkenny in the final, only John Fitzgibbon and Cathal Casey played more than ten championship games for Cork at senior level.

Cork underwent another barren spell at under-21 level throughout the ‘90s, mirroring their senior woes. They claimed provincial honours in ’96 however and the following year returned to the All-Ireland u-21 final to face the reigning champions Galway. Cork won by seven, sparking a renaissance in hurling fortunes on Leeside. Of the starting fifteen that defeated the Tribesmen, eight lined out in the momentous senior final two years later and all but three of them would make senior contributions at senior level.

A Cork side comprising seven of the ’97 u-21 winning side retained their title the following year, again defeating Galway and this time around, only the midfield pairing of Kildorrery’s Austin Walsh and Fermoy’s Luke Mannix ended their hurling careers without a senior championship appearance. Surprisingly, Ballincollig’s Dan Murphy, who captained both the ’97 and ’98 sides, appeared only once for the Cork seniors at championship level.

Of the Cork players likely to line out against Dublin this evening, Daire Connery, Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly have already played senior championship hurling for Cork. Regardless of the result, developing more players that can make that all-important step-up should remain the ultimate barometer for success.

Year / ResultPlayers to play Senior Championship
1966 Cork 9-9 Wexford 5-9 *2nd replay9 – Con Roche (Barr’s), Denis Coughlan (Glen Rovers), Justin McCarthy (Passage), Gerald McCarthy (Barr’s), Seanie Barry (Bride Rovers), Jack Russell (Ballyhea), Charlie McCarthy (Barr’s), Andrew O’Flynn (Glen Rovers), Eddie O’Brien (Passage) Honours – 35 Munster Championships, 18 All-Irelands
1968 Cork 2-18 Kilkenny 3-98 – Frank Norberg (Blackrock), Noel Dunne (Cloughduv), Willie Walsh (Youghal), Ray Cummins (Blackrock), Donal Clifford (Cloyne), Pat Moylan (Blackrock), Pat Hegarty (Youghal), Joe Murphy (Passage) Honours – 25 Munster Championships, 11 All-Irelands
1969 Cork 5-13 Wexford 4-710 – Frank Norberg, Seamus Looney (Barr’s), Donal Clifford, Teddy O’Brien (Glen Rovers), Pat Moylan, Willie Walsh, Noel Dunne, Ray Cummins, Brendan Cummins (Blackrock), Pat McDonnell (Inniscarra) Honours – 30 Munster Championships, 14 All-Irelands
1970 Cork 5-17 Wexford 0-89 – Martin Coleman (Ballinhassig), Pat McDonnell (Inniscarra), John Horgan (Blackrock), Teddy O’Brien, Seamus Looney, Connie Kelly (Cloughduv), Pat Moylan, Seanie O’Leary (Youghal), Brendan Cummins Honours – 34 Munster Championships, 19 All-Irelands
1971 Cork 7-8 Wexford 1-1111 – Martin Coleman, Martin O’Doherty (Glen Rovers), Pat McDonnell, Brian Murphy (Nemo Rangers), John Horgan, Seamus Looney, Mick Malone (Eire Og), Brendan Cummins, John Rothwell (Blackrock), Seanie O’Leary, Donie Collins (Blackrock) Honours – 47 Munster Championships, 25 All-Irelands
1973 Cork 2-10 Wexford 4-28 – Brian Murphy, Martin O’Doherty, John Buckley (Newtown), Denis Burns (Barr’s), Tim Crowley (Newcestown), Tim Murphy (Blackrock), Seanie O’Leary, Jimmy Barry-Murphy (Barr’s) Honours – 41 Munster Championships, 19 All-Irelands
1975 Kilkenny 5-13 Cork 2-196 – John Crowley (Bishopstown), Finbarr Delaney (Blackrock), John Fenton (Midleton), Bertie Og Murphy (Sars), Tadgh Murphy (Sars), Jimmy Barry-Murphy Honours – 30 Munster Championships, 15 All-Irelands
1976 Cork 2-17 Kilkenny 1-89 – Jerry Cronin (Newmarket), John Crowley, Dermot McCurtain (Blackrock), John Fenton, Tom Cashman (Blackrock), Finbarr Delaney, John Allen (Aghabollogue), Pat Horgan (Glen Rovers), Tadgh Murphy Honours – 40 Munster Championships, 21 All-Irelands
1977 Kilkenny 2-9 Cork 1-98 – Jerry Cronin, John Crowley, Finbarr Delaney, Tom Cashman, Dermot McCurtain, Pat Horgan, Padraig Crowley (Bandon), Tadgh Murphy Honours – 33 Munster Championships, 17 All-Irelands
1982 Cork 0-12 Galway 0-116 – Ger Cunningham (Barr’s), John Hodgins (Barr’s), Willie Cashman (Barr’s), Kevin Hennessy (Midleton), Tony O’Sullivan (Na Piarsaigh), Tomas Mulcahy (Glen Rovers) Honours – 29 Munster Championships, 13 All-Irelands
1988 Cork 4-11 Kilkenny 1-57 – Christy Connery (Na Piarsaigh), Damien Irwin (Barr’s), Cathal Casey (St. Catherine’s), Pat Kenneally (Newcestown), Ger Manley (Inniscarra), Mark Foley (Argideen Rangers), John Fitzgibbon (Glen Rovers) Honours – 10 Munster Championships, 6 All-Irelands
1997 Cork 3-11 Galway 0-1314 – Donal Og Cusack (Cloyne), John Browne (Blackrock), Diarmuid O’Sullivan (Cloyne), Wayne Sherlock (Blackrock), Derek Barrett (Cobh), Dan Murphy (Ballincollig), Sean Og O’hAilpin (Na Piarsaigh), Pat Ryan (Sars), Timmy McCarthy (Castlelyons), Micky O’Connell (Midleton), Darren Ronan (Ballyhea), Joe Deane (Killeagh), Sean O’Farrell (Carrigtwohill), Brendan Coleman (Youghal) Honours – 41 Munster Championships, 24 All-Irelands
1998 Cork 2-15 Galway 2-1016 – Donal Og Cusack, Mark Prendergast (Na Piarsaigh), Diarmuid O’Sullivan, Wayne Sherlock, Derek Barrett, Dan Murphy, Sean Og O’hAilpin, Neil Ronan (Ballyhea), Timmy McCarthy, Micky O’Connell, Brian O’Keefe (Blackrock), Sean O’Farrell, Joe Deane, John Anderson (Glen Rovers), Ben O’Connor (Newtown) Honours – 42 Munster Championships, 24 All-Irelands

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