O'connell's squad share Flanagan's 'iron' resolve
HISTORY shows that many Louth teams have fallen at the first hurdle in Leinster after winning county championships, and John Flanagan for one has been amazed by O'Connell's run to next Sunday's Leinster IFC decider.
'It's frightening that we're still here coming into December,' the 34-year-old forward reflected as he looked ahead to the clash with Monasterevan, ' and it's surprised me. I thought that would be it when we won the Intermediate Championship because that was the big goal for the last number of years.
'But the players had their few days of celebrations and then it was straight back to training on the Thursday. Against Emo you could see there was a real desire and the workrate was tremendous, and it's been a real team effort to get to the final, with everyone working hard for each other.'
Physically it's been demanding, especially now when the pitches are softer, but there's no one grumbling around Castlebellingham as Wayne McKeever's charges begin final preparations for Sunday's provincial decider against the Kildare intermediate champions.
'I missed the first half of the season and only came back in the summer, and I expected to be finished long before now, but when you're playing after September you know you've had a good season,' said Flanagan.
'The lads are training from the end of January, but when you're winning games and playing well you don't feel the drag of the training and there's nobody complaining. Even today, training in a mudbath, everyone came off afterwards smiling and happy.
'The whole club is on cloud nine at the minute and the whole parish is in great spirits.'
It's all a far cry from early summer when the Intermediate Championship favourites went into their first group game against St Bride's and were left stunned by a dour 0-7 to 1-3 defeat. Flanagan, who was a spectator that day, remembers the match well for all the wrong reasons.
'It was the worst game of football I have ever seen, from both sides. In previous years we had cruised through our championship groups and weren't really tested until the last day. That game was a wake-up call for us and we had to dig deep, but our results since then have shown that the character in this team is unbelievable.
'In the Leinster semi we were down to 14 men and looked down and out, but still managed to pull it out of the bag.'
In Flanagan's view there has been no real transformation around The Grove to explain O'Connell's huge success this year, although Division 1 football has surely been a plus in terms of giving them competitive games, and of course they still have that league final to look forward to in the weeks ahead.
'It's the same group of players as previous years,' he pointed out. 'We've a couple of young lads who have freshened things up, while you've the likes of Conor Byrne and Jackie Agnew who are not young lads any more and who have developed and shown they can hold their own against anybody. 'We had a few lucky breaks during the year as well, but the atmosphere in the squad is fantastic and it's a pleasure to be part of the whole thing.'
For Flanagan silverware has been an unexpected bonus, having previously made a decision not to play football at all in 2012. 'I decided last winter to pack it in,' the former Dundalk and Drogheda United soccer player said. 'I was doing a Half Ironman in Galway in September and focusing on training for that, and when Wayne [McKeever] asked me to come back I only came to keep myself fit.'
For the record, Flanagan completed the 1.9km swim, 90km bike ride and half-marathon run in 5hr 49min and that durability should stand to him in what are likely to be heavy conditions on Sunday.
Monasterevan, who themselves ended a long wait for Intermediate glory this year, had seven points to spare over Cuala of Dublin in the provincial semifinal, with 17-year-old Wayne Fitzpatrick kicking four from play, and the young corner forward could prove a real handful - not that O'Connell's are concerning themselves too much with the opposition.
'Wayne has said that we're focusing on ourselves, but I was talking to Robbie Dunne who was with me at Drogheda and Dundalk and is playing in KIldare, and he told me Monasterevan are a physical team and hard to break down.
'It could be a bit of an armwrestle, but hopefully we will have enough to win.'