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'If there's 8 or 9 better forwards than him in the county, we don't know anything about hurling'

Conor Lehane was the star of yesterday’s Cork senior hurling final as he shot 0-13.

Conor Lehane (file photo).
Conor Lehane (file photo).
Image: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

IT IS A decade since Ben O’Connor made his last championship appearance in Cork colours, a qualifier exit on a Saturday in July at the hands of Galway.

That afternoon in Limerick saw a player entering a different phase of his Cork career, Conor Lehane handed a debut at the age of 18, when he was introduced as a late replacement.

O’Connor retired the following March in 2012 from inter-county fare, Lehane soon nailed down a regular spot in the Cork ranks until his involvement there came to an abrupt halt last December, a casualty of a squad overhaul.

Yesterday O’Connor was steering sideline operations in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, plotting a path for Midleton to land a first Cork senior title since 2013.

He watched Lehane on the pitch fill the role of chief conductor in orchestrating matters. For that last Cork final success Midleton enjoyed, Lehane struck 2-10 out of his team’s 2-15 return against Sarsfields.

Yesterday provided a similar level of attacking wizardry, 0-13 out of their 0-24 return against Glen Rovers.

conor-lehane Conor Lehane (file photo). Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“You saw there again today when the pressure was on, who was the out man?” said O’Connor afterwards, a victorious coach reflecting on the impact of his star player.

“Ball down to Conor and Conor would win it.

“Look, if there’s eight or nine better forwards than him in the county, we don’t know anything about hurling.”

This is the second season that O’Connor has got to work with Lehane after assuming the Midleton coaching reins. Covid-19 ripped up their club preparations last year, but 2021 has provided a clearer run in the summer and, critically, Lehane’s focus has solely been on his club activities.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s back in form’,” said O’Connor.

“Well I was down here last year and Conor got 3-30 (1-19 from placed balls) in three matches. There weren’t too many other inter-county players that got 3-30 in three matches.

“He’s been outstanding for us. I suppose one of the biggest pluses we had this year was that he was dropped by Cork because we had him every night. He was able to drive it on to the boys. They’ll follow suit, whatever Conor says.

“I’m just delighted for him because in fairness, he took everything on board that we done this year.”

Lehane was the headline act in the Midleton ranks and he lived up to that billing.

Here are the nuts and bolts of his performance. 13 points posted on the board, eight from frees and five from play.

He shot 0-7 in the opening half, the spell when all of his scores from play occurred. Two of those stood out. A brilliant catch from a puckout in the 19th minute and a shot rifled over the posts. Then another fetch from Brion Saunderson’s delivery seven minutes later, a swift exchange of passes with Sam Quirke and a point registered from halfway.

Before the break came a moment that captured his rising level of confidence and willingness to be creative in his play. Possession gathered in front of the North Stand, a casual flick reverse pass over his head to take a Glen defender out of the equation and team-mate Ross O’Regan bombed over a point.

In the second half Lehane’s radar was not attuned as sharply in front of goal. He struck three wides in the third quarter yet still nailed six points from frees. If you wanted a snapshot of his influence, it came in the last quarter as he provided the leadership Midleton needed in more challenging conditions, coping with a late Glen Rovers rally on a bitingly cold winter afternoon.

With ten minutes left, he was fouled and converted the free that pushed Midleton clear. A couple minutes later he slotted over Midleton’s last point of the afternoon.

“Everybody knows now at this stage I think, Conor loves a county final,” said Midleton team-mate Luke O’Farrell.

“The other thing about Conor, we all know it – he’s not in the top five players in the county, he’s in the top five players in the country.

“He’s put his own marker down there today, he let his hurling, do the talking.”

For a team contest, the game beforehand seemed set to boil down to an attacking duel between Lehane and Patrick Horgan.

Neither leading light disappointed. Horgan shaded it in the individual scoring stakes, 1-12 to 0-13, but Lehane’s fingerprints were all over Midleton’s display and he availed of strong scoring showings around him – his five forward colleagues of O’Regan, Pa White, O’Farrell, Cormac Beausang and Sean O’Meara sharing 0-11.

But their captain lit up the game. A second county senior medal arrives eight years for Lehane after his first. All the more satisfying, considering Midleton failed to emerge from the group stages last year.

His display, the end point after a season that delivered 0-55 (0-33 from frees) across six games, will inevitably spark conversation about whether there is a potential road back to the inter-county stage.

He turns 30 next summer, will this form be persuasive enough?

Before that his focus will be on a Munster club semi-final next month against Kilmallock and his latest dislay was of little surprise to his club manager Ger Fitzgerald.

“Outstanding. Actually you know what we’ll do, ye comment on that. Ye know what I’m going to say. Ye write everything ye should, all about that. That’s ye’re challenge now because ye know what ye see. That’s ye’re job, really in the media.

“To me, he’s outstanding but he’s always been outstanding for us. He’s a huge captain, he’s our leader. He’s a huge influence, he’s our captain, our leader, our talisman. His presence at training certainly upped the ante of it.

“But when he’s come back to us from Cork, his presence has always been the same. So he’s no different, it’s just we had him for longer. But his attitude and his work-rate have been superb with us all the time.

“Okay somedays displays don’t go for you, but that goes for every player. Massive player, delighted with him. Deserved nothing more today than that performance and that stage, but it was made for him and he took it.”

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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