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'Incredible hurlers, the best two I've ever come across to demand the ball when the pressure was on'

Newtownshandrum’s Pat Mulcahy on the 2000 breakthrough that was the start of a decade of success for club and county in Cork hurling circles.

2000 week

This article is a part of 2000: Revisited, a week-long series of features looking back on some of the headlines and the forgotten stories that filled the sports pages 20 years ago.

Here Pat Mulcahy tells Fintan O’Toole how All-Ireland glory, All-Stars, Munster triumphs and hurling styles were impacted by his club Newtownshandrum’s Cork title win in 2000.

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IN OCTOBER 2000 they experienced a Sunday evening homecoming like no other in their pocket of North Cork.

There had been hurling celebrations previously, there would be plenty momentous ones to come over the following decade.

But this was a landmark occasion in the village of Newtownshandrum.

The senior hurling summit in Cork had been reached for the first time that afternoon.

“I remember coming down the village on the open top bus and Jerry (O’Connor) was next to me,” recalls Pat Mulcahy.

“Jerry just said, ‘Look whatever happens after this, we won’t top this’. I remember him saying that and I’ll never forget it. That was as good as it gets.

“There were people from Duhallow, North Cork, loads of neutrals because we were the small club that came from nowhere. The support we had was phenomenal.”

The delight and hysteria at collecting their maiden senior hurling crown was cloaked in emotion.

Their victory that day in Páirc Uí Chaoimh over Erins Own had arrived a week after the game was originally set to be played.

On the Friday night Dan Mulcahy had passed away suddenly, the father of a trio of Newtown players in full-back Brendan, centre-back Pat and full-forward Donal.

The match was postponed but in trying circumstances, the focus was placed on hurling seven days later. The Mulcahy brothers all pitched in, Pat left with the man-of-the-match award and a three-point victory was fashioned.

A week later they had to turn around and face a Munster assignment, an onerous task heading to Waterford to face a Mount Sion team loaded with talent and aided by extra rest. Newtown fell short by a point but defeat did not diminish what they had achieved that season.

And it would prove to be the launchpad for a special era.

Newtown Source: Irish News Archives

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First-time county champions face a question at some juncture when the celebrations have eventually been parked

After all the effort at reaching the top, will this be the pinnacle in the lifespan of their team or the start of a spell where they consistently enjoy elevated status?

For the Newtownshandrum hurling class of 2000, it ignited their charge. By the end of that decade they had added three more Cork titles. They turned that into a trio of Munster final victories, the most successful senior hurling club in the province in that time frame. The list of those they defeated is a roll call of heavyweight outfits – Adare, Ballygunner, Patrickswell, Thurles Sarsfields and Toomevara.

john-mccarthy-and-pat-mulcahy Pat Mulcahy (right) with John McCarthy after Newtownshandrum's 2003 Munster final success

National acclaim arrived in the shape of their All-Ireland triumph in 2004 as they hit full speed in their display to sweep past Antrim’s Dunloy.

They were only foiled in the bid to retain that crown in 2006 at the final hurdle by a Portumna team inspired by a 17-year-old Joe Canning who struck 1-6 on a day of bone-chilling cold in Croke Park.

And there was wider recognition as well. Mulcahy and the O’Connor twins would land a combined haul of six All-Ireland medals that decade and match that with the same amount of All-Stars. Ben captained Cork as they lifted Liam MacCarthy in 2004, Jerry was Hurler of the Year a year later. Paul Morrissey, John Paul King and Cathal Naughton would also make the jump to the Cork senior ranks over the next while.

cork-and-newtownshandrum-all-stars-jerry-oconnor-pat-mulcahy-and-ben-oconnor The 3 Newtownshandrum players that won All-Stars in 2005 Source: INPHO

For a club not blessed with a plentiful pick, they reaped a rich dividend from those that they possessed.

In early 1996 Mulcahy was finding it tough to get a place on the Cork U21 panel. By the close of the season he had manned the centre-back berth to pick up a pair of county medals with divisional outfit Avondhu (senior) and Newtown (intermediate).

Those wins coupled with the knowledge that a gifted underage crop were charging up the ranks fuelled his hope for the club’s future.

“We knew going into 2000 that we weren’t bad, we weren’t far off it. Blackrock and Imokilly were very strong at the time, as it turned out we didn’t meet either one of them. We were young, almost carefree and it was building.

“The one thing that sticks in my head is that we played Ballyhea in an U21 North Cork final in ’96, my last year, I was captain. Ben was only 17 and we’d a quick chat on the pitch beforehand and I said, ‘Jesus I’ve never beaten Ballyhea in championship’.

“Ben just looked at me and said, ‘I’ve never lost to Ballyhea at any level ever’.

“He just had that confidence and I fed off it. The younger fellas genuinely believed they were going to win every match they went out and played.

“And if they weren’t winning it, it was just a matter of working harder to win it.”

Graft was only part of it, they needed a touch of stardust to triumph as well.

Twin brothers helped in that regard, their hurling telepathy and chemistry enabling them to dazzle on the club and county stages. More than anyone, Ben and Jerry O’Connor put Newtownshandrum on the national hurling map.

“I haven’t met anyone at any level in GAA, and I include players I played against, that are as good as they were coming down the tracks with five minutes to go to get on the ball, to look for a winner.

“Most players, myself included, when the game is in the melting pot, teams can panic a little bit and they shy away from the ball. Incredible hurlers, the best two I’ve ever come across to demand the ball when the pressure was on.

“They would look for the ball when the maximum pressure was on and that’s why we won so many games by a point. They were never afraid to lose it. Like Cork and Clare in 2005, the All-Ireland semi-final, Jerry getting that last point, they were just so brave. That set them apart from anybody else.”

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ben-oconnor-of-newtownshandrum-celebrates-victory Ben O'Connor after the 2005 Cork senior hurling final

jerry-oconnor-1732004 Jerry O'Connor celebrating after the 2004 All-Ireland senior club hurling final

Overseeing the club’s rise was a dominant figure with an unwavering belief in what they could achieve.

Newtownshandrum have enjoyed the input of experienced coaching figures over the years – Ger Cunningham from Limerick and current Cork football coach Cian O’Neill amongst them – but it was Bernie O’Connor, native of Meelin and father of the twins, that had the most transformative impact.

“Bernie used to say to us, ‘Lads, ye should be winning five seniors in your time’.

“And we laughed at him like. But that was Bernie’s dream. It wasn’t cocky or over confidence, it was just utter belief that these guys at their best could be as good as anyone.

“Bernie did drive it. He’s a very confident person and he’s a person that no matter what environment he’s in, he believes he deserves to be there. I can only speak personally, I would have probably lacked that confidence myself as a younger person.

“When you’re playing in a team with him, he can be very harsh but he’d absolute self-belief. He drilled that into us day and night. He changed the culture in the levels we played at. We were playing B grade underage and he put us up A straight away.”

bernie-oconnor-manager-of-newtownshandrum-celebrates-victory-4122005 Bernie O'Connor after Newtownshandrum's 2005 Munster final success Source: ©INPHO

Central to his legacy was the style of play he implemented.

The environment was different around 2000, the value placed on possession in hurling was lower. Newtownshandrum’s focus on movement, passing and support play was not always to the taste of those watching on.

“They drew a county U21 final in 1998 and he got hammered in the papers about the short passing style. It was just water off a duck’s back, didn’t bother him in the slightest. He’d absolute belief in what he was doing.

“We believed we were better than a lot of teams because we had a style that was ahead of its time in lots of ways.

“Even though I didn’t play it growing up, the first time Bernie came in and when I saw lads playing, it was just logical to me.

“What I loved about Bernie was that he always focused on what your strengths were and what your asset was.

“I always thought of it like this, if a long ball went in and it wasn’t won inside, everyone blames the full-forward for not winning it. If a handpass didn’t come off, no one blamed the guy who was executing the handpass, they blamed the style. So in the short ball game the style was blamed, in the long ball game it was the individual was blamed. That’s what Bernie used to always say to us.”

It worked in their favour and it reverberated around the country as the Cork senior side adopted those strong characteristics to help them regain elite status between 2003 and 2006.

Two decades on and those stylistic features in hurling teams are widespread.

The new normal.

“I’ve seen a couple of videos from back then and we were long ball in comparison to what teams are like now,” says Mulcahy.

“If you’re not getting your head up now and finding someone and coming off a shoulder, then you’re not playing hurling. We did that and we were ahead of our time but it’s completely evolved and every single county and club are doing it now.”

Their gameplans were effective in securing results and that success was the catalyst for call-ups elsewhere. Those auditions were integral to Mulcahy’s subsequent progress in a Cork jersey.

“I’d an up and down time in the noughties with Cork but if your club was going well, you could always come back to your club and you’d feel comfortable there and good about it. You always felt like part of a family and that would get your confidence back.

“And because we were going reasonably well, we were always in the shop window. We were always playing high visible games, so it was easier to get yourself back into inter-county contention.”

Their time in the limelight featured some results that sparked regret but also gave them joyous journeys outside their local borders.

“We lost county final in 2002 and Blackrock were better than us, they were more mature, the better hurling side. 2004 we were coming off the back of an All-Ireland, that was tough to sustain it because we didn’t have a huge panel and the same in 2006 after that final.

“The one we were really frustrated with was probably 2007 (county final) because we had a really good side. We were complacent going into it and our mindsets weren’t right, all of us and Erins Own beat us on the day.

“The Munster championship games were real adventures for us. We felt they weren’t as tactical as the Cork championship because people didn’t know you as well. We could express ourselves a little bit more. Those were the games we enjoyed, the county championship ones were more pressure.

jerry-oconnor-and-gerard-omahoney-9112003 Newtown players celebrate a victory over Toomevara in Munster Source: INPHO

“Outside that then against O’Loughlin Gaels, two games in 2004, they were outstanding that time. They’d serious players. 2010, Ballyhale were probably that bit better than us but they only beat us by two points and we didn’t play well.

“We always felt if we’d got a chance off Portumna again, we’d have had a right cut off them because they beat us in 2006. They were phenomenal that time but we were really poor that day, I was shocking myself.

“But in general it was a brilliant decade and it was all set by that group of lads that came through.”

Back to where it all began.

That county final two decades ago. Mulcahy can still recall the slice of fortune when Erins Own looked to crucially hit the net late on in a game that transpired to be a major breakthrough.

“It was probably a goal. It was disallowed, there was a free out given. I think Tomas O’Leary got it, I didn’t think it was a free but I would have argued it wasn’t a free in the first place.

“I remember Jerry O’Connor went in centre-forward on Brian Corcoran with ten minutes to go and he picked off a few brilliant points. That settled it but it was a nervous finish alright.”

“It all started in 2000. It was that year that kicked it off for us in lots of ways.”

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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