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'He's a great guy and an exceptional player' - The trailblazer that is key to Cork hurling hopes

Mark Coleman will be critical to Cork’s challenge against Limerick on Saturday night.

Cork's Mark Coleman.
Cork's Mark Coleman.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

ON A SATURDAY night in early July 2016, the Cork senior hurlers saw their ambitions for that year collapse.

A three-point loss to Wexford represented the end, both of their interest in that season and the long run of supremacy they had enjoyed over their opponents in the senior championship arena, stretching back 60 years.

But the night also represented the start of something, a sign of hope, as hard as it was to detect amidst their despair at that qualifier exit.

They did at least kick-start the career of a player who has grown into a permanent fixture.

In the 68th minute the last of Cork’s five substitutes was introduced. It was a daunting prospect for an 18-year-old, a teenager who was only nine days overage for minor hurling that year, and Mark Coleman didn’t have much chance to impress or help mount a comeback.

But it got his senior career up and running.

Since then Cork have played 19 senior championship games across four seasons and Coleman has started every one of them.

What’s more is he has largely finished them as well, the only exception being a qualifier against Westmeath in 2019 when he was brought off at half-time, at a stage when Cork had coasted clear 0-24 to 0-9 to wrap up the game.

His importance to the team has grown and with a core of senior stalwarts exiting over the winter, Coleman now stands as one of Cork’s more experienced operators.

With their 2021 championship kicking into gear on Saturday night and Limerick as formidable foes as anyone in hurling could envisage, a share of Cork’s hopes will be pinned on what influence their 23-year-old defender can exert.

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mark-coleman-celebrates Mark Coleman celebrates after the 2018 Munster hurling final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

At home in Blarney, his club just on the outskirts of Cork city, Coleman has long been a trail-blazer.

Shane Barrett has emerged brightly over the last few weeks in his first senior league for Cork and may get minutes on the pitch next Saturday.

Barrett also has an All-Ireland U20 final date, a 2020 fixture that has spilled over to this calendar, on Saturday week in Nowlan Park. Club-mates Padraig Power and Declan Hanlon share that Cork dressing-room with him.

But it is Coleman who has set the senior target to reach.

When he got brought on in Semple Stadium in 2016, it wasn’t just a personal milestone, it was also one for his club with their first representative to get senior championship game time for Cork.

There had been some in the spring but no one in the summer when the glare of the spotlight was brighter.

“I played in that infamous game in 2009 when we were well beaten by Kilkenny,” says Blarney club-mate Joe Jordan of his own Cork experience.

“Better to have played one game for Cork that’s remembered anyway, it’s a good story!

“So there was myself, Darragh McSweeney in 2006 and Brian Sheehan before us in 1992, all played in the league for Cork.

“Then Mark went one better and made the championship breakthrough.”

joe-jordan Joe Jordan in action for Cork against Kilkenny in 2009. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Coleman’s father Ray was on the fringes of Cork senior squads in the ‘80s, his various club roles sparked a strong hurling interest in his son.

“Mark’s pushed the boundaries for the club in all the right ways, but he’d always be immersed in hurling with his family,” says Jordan.

“His father Ray, uncles Donal and Fintan, were all excellent Blarney hurlers in their own right. Ray was intermediate manager a few times. His mother Ann would be deeply involved in the hurling and camogie club.

“Then his first cousins would be Shane and Killian Murphy who played for Erins Own and Cork seniors. So he was steeped in hurling, always around the club.”

With a birthday of December 23rd, Coleman faced the challenge at underage of hurling against players almost a year ahead of him.

His developed was stalled slightly but his skill, ability and talent were always evident. In 2015 he made the grade in his last year of minor. Cork lost a Munster semi-final to Limerick before their team splintered and travelled in different directions.

Coleman, Declan Dalton, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Robbie O’Flynn are now Cork senior hurlers. Sean Powter is a star turn for the footballers.

And Conor McCarthy was another Blarney player on that team, who has just completed his first season in Scotland as a defender with Premiership side St Mirren.

rangers-v-st-mirren-scottish-premiership-ibrox-stadium St Mirren's Conor McCarthy (left) in action against Rangers. Source: PA

If that minor season was fruitless and his debut senior year only offered a glimpse of that level, Coleman rapidly hit the bigtime. His hurling profile escalated after being fast-tracked into the Cork senior defence in 2017.

He had been earmarked after working with a development squad the previous year and then justified the first-team recognition under Kieran Kingston’s watch. His appearance record since has been consistent. Collectively he has been part of two Munster senior-winning sides. Individually he was a Young Hurler of the Year nominee in 2017, won an All-Star that same year and has garnered two further nominations since for his defensive showings.

“2017 was unchartered territory for us,” recalls Jordan.

“You would have always thought, imagining going to the Cork games and there was a Blarney person playing, how good would that be? Then when it actually happened, it was as good as you thought.

“Blarney would be an obsessive hurling club, fellas who’d follow Cork very closely and go to all the matches. Suddenly you went to Thurles and you’d a Blarney fella playing wing-back, scoring sidelines and getting man-of-the-match. I felt the interest in it went up hugely when Mark started playing. That brought a huge buzz to people in Blarney and that has continued on.

“He’s a great guy amd an exceptional player. The time Mark gives back to the club, he’s so interested in it. Any underage requests that come his age, he’ll always do it.”

The tactical dilemma for the Cork management is where to play him. He emerged first as a wing-back but has been centre-back at stages, including in this year’s league. His versatility and ball-playing skills make him a potent figure in the half-back line.

The desire for teams to stifle his threat was showcased when Limerick and Cork met in the league last month, Cian Lynch pushed in to centre-forward to nullify one of Cork’s areas of strength and dictate the pace of the game.

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cian-lynch-and-mark-coleman Cian Lynch and Mark Coleman. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Coleman’s scoring input, spanning play and frees, prove he is capable of impacting further upfield. That was shown initially in the 0-5 return in that 2015 minor semi-final for Cork or when he registered 0-9 to help steer a Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal team from Blarney to victory in an All-Ireland senior C schools hurling final in March 2016.

Last year as the GAA fixtures programme was smashed in two, Blarney got unrestricted access to Coleman. He floated around the middle in different positions and finished the championship with 1-50 from six games as they lifted a county premier intermediate title. In the final alone last October he amassed 0-14, five from play, in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Jordan was in defence on that team that graduated to the second-tier of senior hurling in Cork and got to witness Coleman’s dominance.

“He’s such a threat on the ball. The old adage is that a good hurler can play anywhere, and I don’t know is that strictly true, but I think it does apply to Mark. He’s so adaptable and thoughtful on the pitch.

“I love seeing him in a more advanced position, like the half-forward line. He can influence the scoring stakes. To have that level of scoring ability at your disposal, my philosophy would be always to use that to your advantage.

“But I know it’s horses for courses and it’s whatever role needs to be filled.”

Jordan is a doctor, currently specializing in sports medicine in Dublin and team doctor to Mattie Kenny’s senior hurling squad. Saturday will see him involved with them at Croke Park against Galway before he tunes in to Cork’s game against Limerick that night.

Residing in the capital allowed him to take in the Fitzgibbon Cup conclusion in early 2020 in DCU when Coleman won his second medal and arced over the stunning sideline cut that won the semi-final for UCC.

From his own playing experiences and watching the current senior elite, Jordan is able to appreciate the evolution of half-back play in hurling.

And it is Coleman’s usage of possession that stands out.

“That’s the stick that was thrown at me, the ball would come down with a bit of snow on it,” laughs Jordan.

“Mark is incredible to play with, in how he passes the ball. His vision is astounding.”

“You watch elite inter-county matches and you see Mark, it looks like he’s doing things at his own pace and picking out a guy 60 yards away and into their hand.

“The difference is Mark is so elusive and athletic, and he has the ability to find the time to distribute the ball. Why can’t everyone do that? There’s a reason for it.”

It’s a trait Cork will hope to exploit on Saturday and Limerick will hope to blot out of the game.

How both succeed on that front will be telling.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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