Youngest club comes of age

Paul Brennan got the thoughts of Na Gaeil manager Donal Rooney after he led his home club to a county championship title after previously losing two finals with the team

Na Gaeil players, management and supporters celebrate with the Premier Junior cup after winning the county final in Austin Stack Park last Sunday
Na Gaeil players, management and supporters celebrate with the Premier Junior cup after winning the county final in Austin Stack Park last Sunday

As Eoin Doody went up to collect the cup an observer on the Austin Stack Park pitch commented to this writer that he felt the Na Gaeil players seemed a little muted in their celebrations, that they weren't going as crazy as he'd have thought from a team that had come to the well so often before but gone home thirsty. It's fair to assume that there was a right good party in Killeen on Sunday night but there was probably two reasons why the Na Gaeil players were a little more restrained - if indeed they were at all - at that particular moment.

First, given the 10-point winning margin and the fairly easy ride they had in the second half the Na Gaeil players had ample time to soak in the fact they were county champions well before the final whistle. Cruising to a double-digit victory like that - rather than winning it with an injury-time winner or some such drama at the death - tends to lend itself to a sort of anti-climactic ending to a game, even a final, before the realisation and enormity of what has been achieved hits and the celebrations kick up a level or ten.

The second reason is that precisely because Na Gaeil had lost those three county finals since 2012, including two of the last three, their collective psyche wouldn't have allowed them to dare dream off getting over the winning line this time until the silverware was back in the dressing room at the earliest. And even then they probably had to touch it and taste it a few times before accepting the reality of the situation.

Yes, Na Gaeil, ye are champions!

Their manager Donal Rooney, who played a career with the club without any huge success, and who endured and suffered those two most recent final defeats with the team as their manager, had one word when asked how he now felt.

"Thrilled," he exhaled. "It's been a long four years, I'm four years into a two-year job here. I suppose when we started we were just trying to get up through the divisions (of the county league) and the last couple of years has really been about the holy grail in trying to win this Junior championship, and I'm just delighted today we got over the line."

And what about managing that near universal expectation that this year Na Gaeil would finally win this thing?

"It was difficult really to be honest. After losing two finals you've no right to be any way cocky or whatever. Maybe two years ago we got caught that way but this year we certainly weren't going to be caught like that.

"I wasn't overly happy at half time. I know Jack (Barry) got the goal to put us six up but we certainly hadn't played that well by any means. There was a massive amount of character by Jack to come up when we needed it and get that goal and it gave us a bit of a cushion then. We were by no means going to try and defend it but it gave us that bit of a cushion if they did get a goal we'd still have a bit of a lead to build on.

"This is our fourth year at it and most of these guys have played in at least three, if not four, county finals. Last week we were missing Jack and other fellas stepped up. Dan O'Connor had a great game in the middle of the field last week. We've been missing players all throughout but there's a panel of forty-something guys and we'll be needing all of them over the next few months in the league.

At half time the Na Gaeil management had much to consider after Kieran O'Donovan was sent off just before the break.

"We're always trying to get bodies back but it reduces the amount you can get back if one of them is gone obviously, but I think we still kicked eight or nine points in the second half," Rooney explained. "We very rarely get red cards to be fair so it's not something we're too used to.

"I said in January that we're never (again) losing a shoot-out in a county final, that was our motto. We set ourselves up so we weren't going to be conceding in a classic like we did last year.

"At this sort of level it's a huge tool to have to have a Kerry midfield paring. The lads...I suppose you don't really see it from Jack (Barry) too much at county level but when you can see what he can do out there on a scoring level as well as winning primary ball it's a great platform to have."

And for Na Gaeil, the youngest club in the county, this must feel special?

It's a natural progression for the club. We're the youngest club in the county. I was playing senior football with the club for fifteen or twenty years and we were a yo-yo club, going from division five to four and the odd time we'd get to three. Getting up to the higher divisions was the main thing that we tried when we came in and this is the result of that work as well."