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The Cork duo released from senior squads, hit club form and now key again for county teams

Conor Lehane and Steven Sherlock have impressed since returning to Cork senior squads.

Conor Lehane and Steven Sherlock.
Conor Lehane and Steven Sherlock.
Image: INPHO

ON SATURDAY NIGHT in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, as the game was stuck in injury time, Conor Lehane rounded off the scoring for the night for the Cork hurlers as he converted a free.

A few moments before he had struck over their last point from play in the game against Kilkenny, despatching a shot from midfield between the posts at the Blackrock End.

Yesterday afternoon in Tullamore, it was Steven Sherlock who calmly slotted over the last point of the game, a free from the left wing that clinched victory for the Cork footballers over Offaly.

The respective free-takers helped steer their teams towards success. In the hurling tale, the semi-final outcome propels Cork towards a league final date next Saturday night against Waterford, their first final appearance since 2015 and a chance to win this title for the first time since 1998.

For the footballers the benefits were far-reaching with Division 2 status retained for next spring and a place secured to compete in the Sam Maguire Cup this summer.

But away from the collective progress, these games were a story of individual triumphs for Lehane and Sherlock. There is one more league outing to go for Lehane, with Sherlock having completed that section of the season, but for both it has been a restorative spring on the inter-county stage.

conor-lehane-and-darragh-fitzgibbon Cork's Conor Lehane and Darragh Fitzgibbon after Saturday night's game. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

The parallels are easy to draw. 2020 for both was a time when the plug was pulled on their inter-county involvement. In February of that year, just before the Covid-enforced shutdown of games, Sherlock was released from the football squad. In December, it was confirmed that Lehane would not be involved with the hurlers for the following campaign.

They departed at different stages in their careers. Lehane was 28, having been immersed in the hurling setup since he exploded onto the stage as a Leaving Cert student in 2011. Sherlock was approaching his 23rd birthday, having been in the senior frame since 2018.

Their journeys were familiar with displays of underage promise being rewarded with senior call-ups and then various scoring bursts to illustrate their attacking prowess. Lehane had built up a greater body of work as an older player, an All-Star nominee in 2013 and 2017, a goalscorer in an All-Ireland final against Clare and a multiple Munster medallist, producing one particularly dazzling showing five seasons ago when he hit 0-10 in the provincial opener against the then reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary.

Sherlock had two main campaigns to work with. He started 2018 promisingly with 2-3 in a McGrath Cup final win over Clare and 0-5 in a league opener against Tipperary, while in 2019 he was introduced off the bench in all six of Cork’s championship outings, three of those in the elite company of the Super 8s, and grabbed points in three matches.

By the outset of 2021, the pair were watching on as the inter-county game unfolded. They returned to the grassroots, already county senior winners previously with their clubs in Cork, Lehane with Midleton in 2013 and Sherlock with St Finbarr’s in 2018.

Last autumn and winter, they both soared to new heights and were celebrating club glory in November. Lehane was Midleton’s captain, offensive talisman and top scorer in shooting 0-13, embellished by five splendid efforts in open play, in their hurling final win over Glen Rovers. He had hit 0-32 (0-9 from play) in Midleton’s three games in the knockout stages.

conor-lehane Conor Lehane in action for Midleton. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Sherlock fired 0-7 in St Finbarr’s football decider success against Clonakilty. He amassed 2-27 in the three outings from the quarter-final on, with 2-13 from play. The semi-final against Castlehaven saw him contribute a staggering 2-10, including the point from a pressure free to force a penalty shootout, and he notched the winning injury-time point in the final.

His form continued as St Finbarr’s embarked on a club voyage, 0-13 across their two Munster games as they swept up that championship, and then 0-10 from frees in the semi-final loss to eventual champions Kilcoo in January, the best of those kicks a nerveless effort from the sideline to ensure extra-time.

tom-clancy-looks-on-as-steven-sherlock-takes-a-shot Steven Sherlock hit the match-winner in the 2021 Cork senior final. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

Ben O’Connor, Midleton’s coach last year and a figure well-versed in hurling, reckoned ‘if there’s eight or nine better forwards than him in the county, we don’t know anything about hurling’, when asked about Lehane’s future county prospects after Midleton’s final outing.

St Finbarr’s boss Paul O’Keeffe described Sherlock as ‘having a phenomenal year’ after their county semi-final and hailed the ‘all or nothing kick, it was Roy of the Rovers stuff’, when he had rescued his club.

In the aftermath of those local club campaigns, word filtered though that the form of both had been persuasive. Kieran Kingston was still in the hurling hotseat, Keith Ricken was new to the football post, both made it their business to issue recalls. The invitations were accepted, Lehane and Sherlock both starting 2022 as Cork senior forwards once more.

ian-maguire-and-steven-sherlock-celebrate-with-the-trophy-after-the-game Ian Maguire and Steven Sherlock celebrate after January's Munster club win. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

It’s not a straightforward decision to go back. The42 GAA Weekly hurling pundit Anthony Nash, a former team-mate of Lehane’s, made that point recently that there is plenty to consider for the player and his family. There is a lot to weigh up. Is it worth having another go at the county game with all the commitment and expectation it entails?

For both there was clearly a strong motivation to launch themselves headfirst into that demanding environment once more. There is also a reason why they have been brought back. The club form in 2021 indicated a pair of forwards that have improved their games. The talent was always obvious with both, the consistency of performance was sometimes brought into question, while the willingness to work off the ball, that unglamorous side of top-level forward play, was also debated at times.

But this spring, both Lehane and Sherlock have looked more rounded attackers in their performances. Lehane has adapted well to the hurling setup. He started the first three games and was brought off in them, came on as a sub against Galway, before lasting to the final whistle after starting against Wexford and Kilkenny.

His scoring tally stands at 1-17 with 0-12 of that posted since last Sunday week, the same return of 0-6 (0-3 frees) registered in both games against Leinster opponents. His interplay in attack and involvement in the middle third action have been noteworthy facets, along with examples of the glorious striking in lofting over points from the half-forward area.

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conor-lehane-and-declan-hannon Conor Lehane in action against Limerick. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

He is playing for a team with All-Ireland winning aspirations, the Cork footballers are operating in a contrasting arena. Their aims have been more modest, survival in the second tier was an outcome yesterday to prompt relief. With no wins in their first five games in Division 2, they desperately needed an injection of attacking scoring power and Sherlock has provided it.

He missed the opening two league games due to club commitments, before returning for the meeting with Derry in Owenbeg. A decent goal chance was missed that day but he did knock over 0-5 and the contributions have been valuable ever since – 0-10 against Galway, 0-5 against Meath, 1-7 against Down and 0-9 against Offaly.

stephen-sherlock Steven Sherlock in action for Cork against Meath. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

That makes for an overall return of 1-36 from five matches. The 0-23 converted from placed balls indicates his worth to the team as a prolific free-taker, while the combined 1-7 from play in the wins over Down and Offaly, is proof of the damage he has caused defences, blessed with clever movement to take passes on the loop and an accuracy in his finishing to belt over points from distance.

Thoughts will soon turn to the Munster championship for both, part of teams with varying hopes. Lehane turns 30 in July, Sherlock’s 25th birthday is today.

They have witnessed the harder side of the county game, the ruthless and cut-throat nature when it comes to squad overhauls, and the uncertainty if they’ll ever get back to have another go.

Their clubs provided perfect places for rehabilitation and 2022 to date has proved the recalls were justified.

Their second coming as Cork senior forwards continues to take shape.

This week on the Front Row – The42’s new rugby podcast in partnership with Guinness – panellist Eimear Considine makes a welcome return… and she’s brought her Ireland roommate, Hannah O’Connor, along too. They chat about broken noses, tanning routines, initiation songs and balancing the Women’s Six Nations with teaching, plus how one fan named her child after Ireland winger Beibhinn Parsons! Click here to subscribe or listen below:


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Fintan O'Toole

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