Evan Treacy/INPHO Cork's Alan Connolly.
back of the net

The Blackrock goal machine that has helped turn Cork's hurling season around

Alan Connolly’s input has been a major boost to Cork’s attack.

IT WAS NOT the first time that Shane Kingston had flicked a pass towards Alan Connolly, lurking near goal in Cork colours in a senior championship game.

But this time the outcome was different.

The previous occasion that such a move developed had been in extra-time of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. 

Connolly found himself reaching for the shot, electing to attempt a batted finish first time but Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy raced out of goal to smother his effort. Cork’s prospects that day were not greatly damaged as Jack O’Connor accelerated clear a few minutes later to net for the game-breaking score that propelled them into the All-Ireland decider.

Since that Kilkenny meeting, Cork lost three championship games on the bounce and also incurred a beating in a league final.

Last Sunday week in Walsh Park, their season was on the line and as their setup needed a restorative performance, Blackrock club man Connolly made his vital contribution.

In the 52nd minute, with Cork clinging to a one-point advantage, they fashioned a move along the right wing, which again found Kingston moving onto the ball, tapping it forward with his hurley in the direction of Connolly alone near goal.

This time the 20-year-old capitalised on the opening. He quickly adjusted his feet, back-tracking a couple of paces to grab the sliotar and calmly deposited the ball in the back of the net.


It marked his second goal of the game, a fine return for a player enjoying the landmark moment of his first senior championship start for Cork.

Yesterday he intervened once more, again providing Cork with that piece of goalscoring magic when it was needed. Cork ultimately cantered to success over Tipperary, yet there was a phase of anxiety early in Semple Stadium when they shipped 1-3 without reply and then later saw Noel McGrath stand over a penalty with the chance to push the Premier seen clear.

But McGrath’s shot rapped against the upright, Cork were able to gather possession, steady themselves and swiftly counter-attack downfield. When the delivery landed in Connolly’s direction, it broke away but his reaction to spin back in a run towards goal was telling.

As was the decision of Robbie O’Flynn when he gathered the sliotar to opt against tapping over a point and instead clipping a pass into Connolly. Engineering a situation where Connolly had sight of the net was rewarded, he had the capacity to brush off the Tipperary defensive challenges and the poacher instincts to raise the green flag.

O’Flynn played the assist to Connolly, just as he had from a greater distance three weeks previously on the same pitch. That pass was in front of the opposite terrace but the result was the same in front of the Town End, Connolly coping physically with the challenge of Rory Hayes and then the retreating Diarmuid Ryan before booting the ball to the net.

That goal was not the centrepiece of a Cork comeback, Clare’s superiority had been too pronounced before that, but in the midst of a crisis for Cork, it did offer a hint of what was to come.

It was the start of a run that has yielded four goals in three games for Connolly. The goals may not lead off highlight reels but are all instructive in their own way, capturing Connolly’s positioning, opportunism and composure. 

And it is a tool that has helped revive Cork’s flagging challenge.

At the close of this year’s Munster round-robin, Connolly stands as the top goalscorer in the province with his four strikes. The closest to him is Aaron Gillane who netted three times for Limerick and while Gillane did not feature in their last game in Ennis, Connolly has compiled his tally from two substitute appearances and two starts.

Cork’s top goalscorer in last year’s championship was Shane Kingston with a total of four, while in modern times Patrick Horgan’s number of seven goals, six from play, in the 2019 campaign stands out.

Connolly will have those figures in his sight now. He has nailed down a starting spot in the inside forward line. He clipped over an early second-half point yesterday and could have engineered another goal before half-time after racing clear of the Tipperary defence, but his intended pass to Horgan was intercepted.

Above all he has provided Cork with a focal point close to goal, inviting team-mates in the middle third to go longer and more direct with passes, a shift in style from their opening two losses, and generating an assurance that he can make the ball stick by claiming primary possession.

A Cork minor in 2018 and an All-Ireland winner at U20 level in a 2020 campaign that spilled over to the summer of 2021, Connolly didn’t register a goal in his underage inter-county championship career.

His reputation was probably enhanced more than anything by his electric form at club level when games resumed after the first Covid-19 shutdown of 2020. It was a breakout campaign in club colours, Connolly’s input was essential to Blackrock wiping away 18 years of frustration as they were crowned county champions.

Over the course of six games, Connolly registered 5-52 with 5-8 from play. He hit a goal in every round up to the county final, where he posted 0-13 against Glen Rovers. Blackrock’s defence of that title was unsuccessful last year but Connolly’s numbers were still promising as he shot 5-31, including two goals in their critical last group game against St Finbarr’s and two goals in their quarter-final win over Douglas.

The gap between starring in the club grade and finding your feet in the county game was naturally apparent. He didn’t see gametime in the 2020 championship for Cork, before sampling that stage in the 2021 league. Twice he blasted home a brace of goals against Waterford and Westmeath, but minutes were rationed in the championship with late cameos in four of Cork’s matches en route to the All-Ireland final, contributing 0-2.

A dislocated shoulder served as an early setback to his 2022 plans and Connolly missed Cork’s first two league games. He bagged 1-1 in their last group match against Wexford, impressed with 0-4 in the league semi-final against Kilkenny, before a low-key outing in the final against Waterford saw him whipped off at half-time. That contributed to starting on the bench as the Munster campaign commenced.

Similar to Cork’s collective form, the exit of Waterford and Tipperary from the 2022 season does insert a cautionary note to the evaluation of the last two displays.

But the course of the round-robin has seen Connolly’s reputation and importance to the Cork cause grow.

As they enter the All-Ireland series, the challenges and quality of opposition will continually rise for Cork.

Yet their outlook has changed from a team that looked destined for a May exit to one that can hope to attack the summer ahead.

And in Connolly they now have an attacking weapon at their disposal which has helped transform their fortunes.


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