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'It's great to be back there' - After semi-final epic, now a chance to end 18-year wait for Cork hurling giant

Blackrock are hoping to land a first title since 2002 in next Sunday’s Cork senior final.

Blackrock manager Fergal Ryan with his players.
Blackrock manager Fergal Ryan with his players.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

IF 2020 HAS been a test of Fergal Ryan’s hurling managerial skills, then Saturday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was a microcosm of that.

The year has thrown plenty at the Cork All-Ireland winner, at the helm of his native Blackrock for a fifth season. The change in championship format with group games, a late spring and early summer shutdown, the return to action with matches fired relentlessly in their direction.

But the upshot is they’re still standing, surviving Saturday’s semi-final against UCC in a draining encounter that dragged on for over 80 minutes. Blackrock had one point to spare at the close of an absorbing spectacle that generated 63 scores and a Cork senior hurling final spot next Sunday to look forward to.

“It was unbelievable. You lose a bit of what’s happening on the pitch, really it’s all down to the players when you’re into extra-time. It’s what they do on the pitch as opposed to what you’re shouting on or trying to get across to them. It was very exciting stuff.

“That’s the persistence of the group. I’ve been with them, this is my fifth year now. That’s always what we’re trying to do, you never give up and sit back to say that game is gone. You have to build that in yourself. Over the years we’ve built it and it really came through there today.

“I find the new format quite good. Unfortunately there’s a different scene around sport and everything because of the pandemic but I’d always welcome any changes. Give it a go and see if they work out. Then you look at different ones or revert back to the way it was. I’d be quite happy at how this championship has gone and I’m not just saying that because we’re sitting in the final.”

They required all that resolve in taking on a UCC team loaded with talent. 0-34 is a dizzying tally to amass and yet Blackrock still coped to prevail.

“They’ve a star-studded team but it wasn’t hard to prepare for them. We just focused on ourselves. We were getting calls and different things, this fella’s coming back and that’s fella’s playing. We didn’t do any marking jobs out there, we just said wherever their forwards go, wherever their backs go, we just pick up wherever they are. Maybe that little bit of club spirit came through in the end that brought us through.”

The spirit has been needed in Blackrock to sustain them over a frustrating wait. 32 titles still pushes them to the top of the county’s roll of honour but they’ve been waiting since 2002 to add to that tally.

A bunch of underage trophies – three minor and three U21 in the time that spanned 2011 to 2015 – had nourished hopes of a breakthrough with that quality of player emerging.

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The depth of their panel has helped in recent weeks, plans to travel having been changed this year.

“Really we’ve a very strong bench. Tadhg (Deasy) and John (Cashman) and Alan (O’Callaghan and Robbie Cotter came on, they could be playing just as easily as they’re not. There’s no doubt about it, whichever way we go with it the 15, I think we’ve got strength in depth.

“There was three or four lads going to America. John and Tadhg anyway, I can’t even remember who else. Then that went. We’ve had a good few injuries as well to be fair. Michael (O’Halloran) is just back, Niall Cash, Alan O’Callaghan, Kevin O’Keeffe, who came on there as well.”

 

Ryan was a defensive lynchpin when Blackrock last tasted success in 2002. His son Jamie is part of the current rearguard. There are other links that connected the past success and the present ambition. Niall and John Cashman are sons of Rebel stalwart Jim, Daniel Meaney’s father Liam was in that forward line and Kevin O’Keeffe’s brother Brian part of the attack.

There are older notes of interest in Gary Norberg’s uncle Frank winning an All-Ireland medal with the club in the ’70s and the Cormacks’ father John being part of Tipperary’s successful Liam MacCarthy Cup squad in 1989.

The absence of silverware creates pressure when such a rich tradition exists. Three years Blackrock came up short in a final against Imokilly, their next opportunity against Glen Rovers arrives a time when the Páirc Uí Chaoimh will be largely quiet despite the major prize on offer.

“If we can get 200 spectators next week, if nothing changes, that’s great,” says Ryan.

“Some people will get to see it, the streaming has been great because it gives everyone the opportunity to see it. It’s on TV next Sunday so there’s a bigger audience for us, that’ll be fantastic.

“It’s great to be back there. I hope they’ve learned from 2017 when we were beaten by Imokilly. If they’ve learned and bring a never say die attitude, we’ll be in good shape.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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