IN 2006 THURLES CBS were bidding to end a 50-year drought without winning a Dr Harty Cup title.
Their aspirations of ending a half a century of pain were boosted by the talent they possessed in their ranks. Padraic Maher, Michael Cahill and Pa Bourke were hurling at a level back then that fully suggested they would proceed to feature for the Tipperary senior side some day, while Clonoulty-Rossmore duo John O’Neill and Timmy Hammersley would also become future figures in the inter-county game.
In the semi-final in February of that year, they posted a fine score in registering 0-16 and only conceded eleven scores themselves against Midleton CBS. But they were undone in that clash in Fermoy by shipping three goals and more specifically undone by a 15 year-old who raised three green flags just a week shy of his 16th birthday.
Luke O’Farrell is now a fully-fledged Cork senior hurler, the 22 year-old full-forward who will help shoulder the attacking burden for the county in their All-Ireland quarter-final meeting against Waterford. Around him in attack he has for company the team captain Patrick Horgan, products of Rebel hurling dynasties in Paudie O’Sullivan and Cian McCarthy, his club mate and the young national star of this year’s league Conor Lehane and a two-time All-Ireland senior winner in Niall McCarthy.
Yet it is O’Farrell who could potentially be the difference in unlocking the Déise defence. Goals were his calling card in that Midleton CBS team, which also contained Paudie O’Sullivan, that lifted the Dr Harty Cup in 2006. Nothing much has changed in the interim. It has just taken until now for him to properly express that on the senior stage.
“His potential was always evident,” Ger Fitzgerald, a club mate in Midleton and manager of the Cork U21 sides that O’Farrell featured on in 2010 and 2011, told TheScore.ie. “That Harty Cup game against Thurles was the first day he started to get wider recognition. But from a young age he was always very brave and courageous when he had the ball. If there was a goal on, he’d go for it.”
That attitude was demonstrated in the league semi-final in April when he eschewed the option of popping a simple pass inside to the unmarked Paudie O’Sullivan and instead unleashed a fizzing drive past Brendan Cummins in the Tipperary goal. A fortnight ago when Cork defeated Wexford in the qualifiers, O’Farrell emerged as the go-to guy.
He skipped past Matthew O’Hanlon to despatch Cork’s first goal, showed predatory instincts to nip in ahead of goalkeeper Eanna Martin for his second and then was hauled down for the penalty that saw Anthony Nash crash home the third goal.
His career has been littered with such moments though as there are plenty examples of days when teams needed the rousing inspiration of a goal and he was the one to supply it. As a 19 year-old he starred on a Cork intermediate team that won the All-Ireland title, rifling home goals in the semi-final against Galway and final against Kilkenny.
Last summer was O’Farrell’s final season in the U21 ranks and while a Munster title agonizingly eluded him once more, he rocketed a shot to the top corner in the semi-final against Tipperary and displayed outstanding athleticism in that epic final against Limerick to catch a ball while falling to the ground, rise and lash home a right-hand shot under pressure.
Apart from those intermediate successes in 2009, his inter-county career has been a frustrating cycle of defeats. Even at third-level that has been repeated as he lost an All-Ireland Freshers final in 2009 with UCC and a Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final last year against Limerick IT, a game where O’Farrell did lead a fightback with a terrific second-half goal. These days he continues his studies in Mary Immaculate College in Limerick in a post-graduate degree to become a primary school teacher.
“His pace has always been key in helping him get goals,” says Fitzgerald. “He is explosive really over the first few yards and that helps him get past defenses. The other thing is that he has a really hard shot, he puts a lot of power into his strikes. I think that’s now starting to show at senior level for Cork.”
Cork’s Luke O’Farrell finding the net during the league semi-final in April. Pic: INPHO/Donall Farmer
It’s a notable occasion for O’Farrell’s club Midleton as well tomorrow. Kevin Hennessy and Fitzgerald were part of the Cork team that won the 1990 All-Ireland title but since then Rebel representatives have been scarce. Ger Manley and Peter Smith featured intermittently, Mickey O’Connell did pick up All-Ireland medals but with O’Farrell and Lehane starting tomorrow, it’s a notable occasion for the East Cork town.
“We haven’t had too many players of late so it’s a massive thing for us,” admits Fitzgerald. “We’ve had a lot of guys at minor and U21 level in recent years and that’s a reflection of the hard work at underage level. It had to be done to bring players through.”
O’Farrell has had his injury setbacks, sidelined for the majority of 2008 with a torn cruciate ligament and bothered with a hamstring problem this year that ruled him out of the Munster semi-final against Tipperary. But after making his senior championship debut in the 2010 Munster final replay and managing to fire goals in qualifier wins over the midlands teams of Laois and Offaly, he has been building solidly to this point.
That youngster from Dr Harty Cup days is now capable of finding the net on the biggest stage of all.