Revived, renewed and ready to lead Lixnaw to the coveted Flynn Cup
AS a beginning to a year it wasn't easy.
Down and out and insult added to injury. The defeat to Fr Rocks in the All Ireland Club Intermediate Football Championship final hit hard. It hit Finuge hard. It hit Lixnaw hard. It hit James Flaherty hard.
Flaherty's is a name Kerry hurling boss Tom Howard would have loved to have called upon this year. As accomplished as any other forward in the county, you couldn't watch the Christy Ring Cup Final and not think there was a role for him that day.
At the very least he's the type of player a manager would love to be able to spring from the bench. His pace, his guile, his accuracy all traits Kerry could have done with that fine June afternoon. If ever there was a player for whom the wide open spaces of Croke Park were made it's James Flaherty.
And yet he wasn't there. Having played in two county finals (football and hurling) as well as a Munster club final last year, the Lixnaw captain took a step back in the wake of that Croke Park defeat. The denizens of the north Kerry parish must be glad he did. He looks a player renewed, revived and ready to stake a claim to greatness.
That's why it must have been so frustrating for him to start the campaign on the outside looking in. Injured for the game against Ballyduff he got what no player ever wants for the start of a championship campaign – the spectator's view.
"It's not easy watching it as a spectator," he admits.
Nevertheless it must have been the moment he really began to believe he would be marching up the steps of the stand in Austin Stack Park to collect the fabled Neilus Flynn Cup. The champions looked a broken team and Lixnaw their likely heirs.
"I think I pucked every ball that day. It was absolutely fantastic," he continues.
"At times you were pinching yourself. It was just one of those days when everybody clicked. Everything was first touch to the hand. One of those days when everything went right. Confidence was flowing through the team.
"It was a fantastic performance, because people were saying we would find it hard to beat Ballyduff, that they had a hoodoo, over us. So it was great to put that to bed, at such an early stage in the championship."
When he did come back into the team he came back into a team full of confidence, playing some of the hurling of their lives. As captain he hasn't had to beat too many hurls off too many dressing room tables, you'd imagine, to gee his team up. Playing as well as they are Lixnaw aren't a team short of motivation – those final defeats to Ballyduff are motivation enough.
"It's a great honour," Flaherty says of the role.
"Everybody would love to be captain of their club, so it's a wonderful honour for me, but there are a lot of experienced heads in the dressing room. Players who have played with both Finuge and Lixnaw.
"Also players who have played with the county, both in hurling and football. So there's so much experience there. It's a very easy dressing room to lead. There are so many leaders, it doesn't really matter who is captain. I have to go up and take the toss. After that everybody has their own responsibilities."
His will be to put the sliotar over the bar as often as possible. His will be to stretch that St Brendans full-back line, to take players like Conor Flaherty and Kevin Orpen and take them out of their comfort zone, to leave Eamonn Corridan exposed with Ricky Heffernan lurking ominously. Easier said than done? Of course, but that's the joy of it.
St Brendans will be a tough nut to crack. If anybody knows that it's Flaherty. These are two clubs that have butted heads more than once in the hurling and football field over the years – even if, remarkably, this is the first time they've ever met on Kerry hurling's showpiece occasion.
"I would have played at under-age with a lot of the Ardfert fellows," the Lixnaw captain says.
"They're all very talented hurlers, great athletes as well. I suppose that comes from being dual players like ourselves. They're very fit, very physical, they bring that to the table. John Egan is an exceptional hurler and has been playing outstandingly well all year for them.
"I know they will have massive hunger. 1990 is a long time to be waiting for a championship for a club like Ardfert, but we won't lack any hunger either. You can be sure of that. We've had a lot of pain over the last couple of years, so we will be hoping to put the record straight on Sunday."