Kilcummin will have to be on guard

All Ireland Club IFC Final: Kilcummin v Naomh Éanna, Saturday, February 9, Croke Park, Dublin 4.45pm

Damian Stack

From the flames the phoenix rises. From the worst day to the best day. From the darkness to the light.

As they wandered off the pitch in Austin Stack Park that fateful day two years ago, Kilcummin could have hardly imagined what lay ahead of them. Right then the next year, the next game would have felt a world away.

They were living instead in the moment. In the hurt of it. In the shame of it? Shame is much too strong a sentiment, but undoubtedly the very word itself would have wounded them - relegated, relegation, things they had fought against, things they'd dreaded.

After almost twenty years as a senior club, this was how it ended. At the hands of Kerins O'Rahillys as the curtain-raiser to a county final, which saw their nearest neighbours crowned county champions for the twelfth time.

A cruel irony and on the County Board's part a poor decision to play a relegation final before the blue ribbon event of the domestic calendar. It was a decision that, in hindsight regrettably, heightened the contrast between Crokes' joy and Kilcummin's despair.

Looking back at it now - and it was closer to eighteen months ago than to two years - relegation was arguably the best thing that ever happened to Kilcummin GAA club. At the time you can't look at it that way, survival is the first duty of every club in a championship, relegation is never to be embraced.

Other clubs, more storied clubs than Kilcummin, have dropped out of the senior ranks and struggled for year after year to get back up to no avail. There's always that fear and, yet, even at the time it never felt to us like the end of something, it felt more like the chance for a fresh start.

We suspected that Kilcummin would enjoy life at the intermediate grade. We suspected that with the players they've got coming through the ranks - Seán O'Leary the brightest and best example - that they'd thrive.

Instead of worrying about the drop - that was their fourth relegation play-off final in five years - they could look ahead with confidence. Having fought the good fight for so long, it was a blessed relief to have been free of it all. Free instead to rebuild anew.

They welcomed a few players back into the fold - Gary O'Leary for instance - they welcomed a few others to the senior ranks and under the management of Willie Maher they soon got to work putting the disappointment behind them.

After all those years of struggle the club found that intermediate football agreed with them. They found that winning championship matches agreed with them. It became a habit. Momentum building and leading them all the way back to senior football, to a Munster title and to bright lights of Croke Park this Saturday afternoon.

It's been one hell of a roller-coaster ride and unquestionably the most fun the club have had in years and, probably, ever truth be told and they've done it all demonstrating a real grit and determination to go along with their self evident quality.

This Kilcummin side knows how to scrap. All those relegation scrapes have girded them for battle. Girded them for fights against Templenoe and Glenflesk and Two Mile House and, hopefully, for this weekend against Naomh Éanna.

The Belfast outfit probably represent Kilcummin's most fearsome opposition yet. A team with a back story that tells you that they will have grit and determination and a style of play that will seek to put the Kerry kingpins on the back foot.

An Spidéal were warmly fancied to win their All Ireland semi-final with Naomh Éanna - just as Kilcummin are now - but the Antrim side showed what they're all about, winning rave reviews for how they challenged the Connemara men.

Their star man is probably their midfielder Joe Maskey (a member of the Antrim hurling panel) who scored a spectacular goal (from about 45 metres out) against An Spidéal. Their most impressive forward is Odhran Eastwood, with corner-forward Eoin Nagle providing ample support.

Kilcummin will need to be at their best in this game. Of that there is no question. They will probably need Kevin McCarthy fit and ready from the start too - seeing as he featured off the bench in the semi-final against Two Mile House, he's probably going to - they will need everybody else playing as well as they can.

Finals are days when heroes emerge. They're not always the star man. They don't always start the match, but when the fat is in the fire they deliver. Kilcummin have enough men of character and enough quality to bring this All Ireland title back to the Kingdom. It won't be easy, but when is it ever for Kilcummin?

Verdict: Kilcummin