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Dublin: 8°C Friday 16 April 2021

'Not only does Conor Lehane lift the piano, he cracks his knuckles and belts out Beethoven'

Jamie Wall traces the ‘not-quite-professional’ development of one of Cork hurling’s biggest talents.

Galway will need to shackle Lehane when the sides meet on Sunday.
Galway will need to shackle Lehane when the sides meet on Sunday.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

IT MAY COME as a surprise to many to learn that Conor Lehane did not start for a single development squad between the ages of 14 and 16. Not one. Probably the main reason being pace.

Yes, pace.

The man who left four Clare defenders in his wake on his way to scoring one of the great All-Ireland final goals was not always the V2 rocket we see today. But that’s just one of many elements in the continuous ‘not-quite-professional’ development of the inter-county career of one of Cork’s best and brightest.

Whatever Conor Lehane did in that winter of 2008, it worked, because the following year, the Midleton man was named at wing forward for the Cork minors and he hasn’t taken a backward step since. Today, Lehane stands as one of the key players in a new Cork team, and indeed, newer Cork system that hopes to end the now 10-year wait for Liam McCarthy.

After Cork’s disappointing opening-day defeat to Waterford, John Mullane penned an article where he suggested Cork would benefit from Cadogan around the middle, and Patrick Horgan at number 11. Whether by accident or design, it would appear that Cork have adopted that plan, or something similar to that end. In a system that now more than ever needs piano players, and piano carriers, Lehane‘s importance to Cork is two-fold, as not only does he lift the piano on to the stage, he also sits down, cracks his knuckles, and routinely belts out Beethoven.

Not only does he contribute on the scoreboard, but Lehane is Cork’s top scorer from play in this year’s Championship, and he is fully capable of winning his own ball, on the ground or in the air. Cork have averaged nine scorers a game this year in their three championship games, and with Lehane and Seamus Harnedy at the forefront, this step up to ease the scoring burden on Horgan has been key to their post first-round renaissance.

Lehane made his debut in 2011, as a 19-year-old, in Cork’s qualifier defeat to this weekend’s opponents, Galway. Since then he has developed from a player capable of sporadic genius into a consistent scoring threat and team leader.

Consistency was possibly one of the few criticisms thrown his way from the outset of his career, but in fact, even his improvement has been frighteningly consistent. Averaging one point a game in his breakthrough season of 2012, that became two points a game in 2013, three in 2014, and with 1-9 to his credit after just three games this year, he is currently averaging four points a game for Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s men.

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Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It is no coincidence that this uniform improvement came during his tenure at 38-time Fitzgibbon Cup winners UCC. A record of a Freshers’ All-Ireland and a Fitzgibbon medal speaks for itself, but it was his personal contribution in those wins that is most telling. Under the tutelage of first Ger Cunningham, and then Eddie Enright, Lehane grew into the leadership material that his late two-point salvo against Wexford now represents.

Lehane captained UCC to their third Freshers’ All-Ireland against UL, and the following year, he put my Mary I team to the sword, with a man-of-the-match display and a personal haul of 1-9. Throw in 2-10 for Midleton in that November’s county final to deliver his club’s first county title in 22 years and you don’t have to be a mathematician to establish the trajectory his hurling career is on.

Source: Kevin Bolger/YouTube

Cork are at a crossroads this weekend, with a decision to make on how to line up. With the threat of Joe Canning on the edge of the square, it would be remiss of Cork to abandon the sweeper role that Mark Ellis, Cork’s answer to Michael Carrick, has made his own. With Alan Cadogan making the right noises in a more withdrawn role of late, numbers in the middle and defence could well be the order of the day.

The trade off, of course however, is being outnumbered in attack. Luckily for Cork, in Harnedy and Lehane, they have two ball-winners who are more than capable of negotiating a sweeper as well as finishing.

Galway will aim to — and if they are to win, will need to — put the shackles on Lehane this weekend if they are to make good on Anthony Cunningham’s Leinster final day promise to meet Brian Cody in September. If not, Cunningham had best book a room in the Citywest hotel for Sunday 6 September.

Don’t ask this Galway hurler about going to the races in Ballybrit next week

About the author:

Jamie Wall

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