Eamonn Sweeney: Victory is all the sweeter when it's shared with your own people
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What's it like to follow a team that never wins anything? The supporters of Waterford hurlers and Mayo footballers have been pretty patient over the years, I suppose. But 58 or 66 years without an All-Ireland are merely small spells of peckishness compared to the famine endured by Kilmacabea. Before last Sunday the West Cork club had gone 129 years in junior football without winning the Carbery divisional title, which has been their holy grail. Think about it; 129 years. No chance of even the most diligent journalist turning up some hardy veteran of a previous victory.
Kilmacabea are one of the oldest clubs in Cork and one of the least successful. Centred on the small village of Leap and its hinterland, Kilmac are hemmed in by powerful neighbours, current Cork senior football champions Carbery Rangers to the east, the mighty Castlehaven to the west.
I've been fascinated by their long fruitless struggle ever since, a dozen years ago, seeing them play a Carbery semi-final against Skibbereen where they fought back from a nine-point half-time deficit to take the lead with two minutes to go, only to concede two late points. Skibbereen went on to win the divisional title and reach the county final but Kilmacabea seemed on the verge of a breakthrough. I couldn't wait to write about it.
But I had to. Kilmacabea's history had been one of waiting and that 2005 campaign proved to be another false dawn. Like the time in 1976 when they lost another divisional semi-final to Castlehaven by two points after being denied a penalty in the final seconds. Three years later Castlehaven were playing in the county senior final. Other old Kilmac foes, Bantry Blues, Dohenys, Skibbereen, Carbery Rangers and Ilen Rovers, rose up the ranks and did the same. Kilmacabea dreamed of what might have been.
Their problem was that the West Cork junior football title is devilishly hard to win. The Carbery division contains 26 clubs, almost all of whom compete in what is a junior championship bigger than that in many counties. Every campaign is a treacherous one and for over a century Kilmacabea couldn't even reach a final. Two years ago they made the decider for the first time but lost to Bandon, who went on to win the Cork junior and intermediate titles in quick succession. Last year they went out in the semi-final to Gabriel Rangers who reached the Munster club final. So when Kilmacabea reached this year's final there was a sense that this might be it.
There was a special feeling in Clonakilty just before 3.30 last Sunday afternoon. The crowd was bigger than I've seen at most senior matches here and the vast majority seemed to be behind Kilmacabea. The sense of anticipation was extraordinary. You see, I've never heard Kilmacabea mocked or belittled for their lack of success. On the contrary, they inspire a lot of affection locally. There was a sizable contingent from neighbouring clubs. I suppose you could have called us neutrals, but who could be neutral in a contest like this?
In the first quarter both teams seemed nervous, almost weighed down by the occasion. Passes went astray, shots flew wide and it all seemed to perfectly fit the condescending cliché of junior football. Then, right at the end of it, Kilmacabea's ginger number 15 decided enough was enough - going right at the heart of the defence, he shipped a high and heavy tackle, picked himself up, kicked the free over the bar and celebrated like someone who had just scored a last-minute winner. It was as though he was giving the signal for the real stuff to begin.
The kid's name is Damien Gore. You'll hear it again. It's a big deal for a little club like Kilmacabea to produce a Cork minor. Four years ago a quicksilver forward named Richie O'Sullivan and a defender, Niall Hayes, made it for them. And in the last two years Damien has flown their flag. He was man of the match in this year's Munster semi-final against Tipperary, scoring 1-5. Kept out of last year's junior championship by the GAA's no under 17s rule, he scored 0-11 in his debut this year and hit the same total when Kilmacabea won this year's West Cork under 21 B title against overwhelming favourites Bandon, a club with around 10 times a greater pick.
Richie is Damien's cousin. Two minutes after the opening score Richie raced to a ball on the left sideline 40 yards out, collected it and turned past his marker with one of those moves which can't be taught and sprinted towards goal. He had only one thing on his mind and somehow the barren years seemed to fall away with every yard before he slipped the ball to the net. Next Damien played a gorgeous reverse pass to Richie who hooked the ball past the goalkeeper Owen Sexton who, 18 years ago today, played for Cork against Meath in the All-Ireland final. For a golden spell Kilmacabea played Gaelic football as it should be played, quick movement, deft passing, intricate teamwork combining with individual inspiration to render them irresistible.
By the 24th minute Kilmacabea were 2-4 to no score ahead and the thought occurred that it would be nice for their fans to enjoy the historic victory in a bit of comfort. Some hope. By half-time Kilbrittain had rattled off 1-3. They have a name as ferocious competitors, it has brought them 12 West Cork junior hurling titles and intermediate and junior crowns at county level in their favoured game. In the semi-final they scored two goals in injury-time to overhaul a five-point deficit. They weren't going to lie down.
Kilmacabea hit two points at the start of the second half but Kilbrittain had the bit between their teeth now. Their full-forward Noel Griffin might be 40 now but he was a fine senior county player for Clare in his day. He kicked a point and then laid on a goal for his team's own promising youngster Josh O'Donovan. Eighteen minutes left, the lead was down to two and the momentum was all with Kilbrittain. Now it struck me that this would be one tragic way for Kilmacabea to lose.
But, having built up a lead with skill, our heroes held on to win with guts. Afterwards, their manager Kevin O'Driscoll spoke about the 104 sessions they'd put in and you could see every one of them as they denied Kilbrittain space and chased every ball. O'Driscoll has a reputation as an intelligent football man and watching Kilmacabea defend I thought about how much organisation and expertise goes in the making of any decent team at any level.
And also how, at any level, a winning team depends above all on leaders. Kilmac's was their captain and centre half-back Clive Sweetnam. When they needed an outlet, Clive was there to take the pass, when they needed to be rallied, he was the one who drove forward, when they needed a calm nerve he was the man who seemed to have all the time in the world.
Midfielder Martin Collins, another recent Cork minor, broke the siege with gallops forward, his never-ending energy another testament to the effort club footballers put in for the honour of their local jersey, right half-back Donie O'Donovan buzzed and battled and blocked like the archetype of every live-wire wing-back in the country. Kilmacabea broke out for one point and then for another to go four points clear.
And then it was over and the crowd were on the pitch. Two old-timers bustled past me. "I was shaky there when they got the second goal," said one. "I was shaky the whole day," replied the other. "You have to come out tonight, you have to," a teenage girl implored her friend. As always in moments like these, there was the sense of people who knew each other well, the bear hugs, the cheers, the jokes, expressing something you could only really know if you were from Kilmacabea. They had journeyed hopefully from Leap and Glandore and Connonagh and Maulatrahane (ancestral home of one B O'Driscoll, rugby legend) and now they had arrived.
But there was one man from Kilmacabea who hadn't rushed on to the pitch. Kevin O'Driscoll turned instead to the crowd, seeking out his wife and his four young children, opting to share the moment of triumph with them and saying a great deal about the kind of man he is. "I didn't plan it," he said. "But I just found myself running to them. They're a big part of it. When you're manager of a team you bring it home with you, you're talking to the kids but it's running through your head at the same time who you'll pick corner-back the next day or why wasn't someone at training. My wife Peggy and my children Patrick and Julianne and Maggie and Jimmy have been great. Patrick is our kit-man, he's 12 and he'd go around collecting the footballs and the water bottles and the jerseys after training."
Kilmac's road began way back on November 4. "We did strength and conditioning till December 16 and took a two week-break till the first week of January. We kept an attendance record and put it up on the players' app."
Maintaining the schedule required sacrifices. "We have one player, Peadar O'Leary, who's married with four kids, he's 36 or 37, he lives in Ballincollig and he works in Dublin Monday to Thursday. He'd travel down from Ballincollig to train with us Friday and Sunday night in Leap. We have lads in college in Dublin and Limerick and Cork and working in Cork, about half of our players are away somewhere." Cork city to Leap, incidentally, is a 100-mile round trip.
It has been a long, personal road for O'Driscoll too. He played in the 2005 loss to Skibbereen, it was his last season with the team and he then became an underage coach. "I'm involved with about half of that team that won Sunday since they were under 12s. They won a West Cork under 12 C final in 2008 and then they won an under 14 B title. They don't know any other trainer, I don't know if that is good or bad."
He is proud of the young talent at the club. "You look at the size of Cork and the size of clubs in the city and for a club like us to have county minors is incredible," he said, adding that the toughest part of his job was keeping players going during the three-month break between fixtures in summer. "You play in April and then there's a break and then there's a shot of games together. It's a nightmare to be honest being without games in the summer, we organised friendlies against teams from Muskerry but it's hard to keep everyone happy without serious games."
Dan Hourihane was at midfield in the 1976 match against Castlehaven. His twin brother John was the free-taker, a good man with a dead ball, as is his son Conor, who strikes them for Aston Villa and Ireland. These days Dan is the chairman and a proud one. "There's a great, great group of men and women involved with Kilmacabea, if anyone is ever asked to do anything, it's done, they never say they can't do it. It's hard work sometimes but they're people who work hard in their daily lives. You know what they say, if you want something done, ask a busy person."
Dan thought about the past. "It was a tremendous day for the older members. I'm 64 now and I played junior football for 25 years, we never produced it in the championship, we never got near it. There's players on this team, Donie and Eoghan O'Donovan, Peadar O'Leary, Karl McCarthy who're playing 20 years. We've asked them to give it one more year seven or eight times."
He thought about the present. "When things turned bad in the economy we lost lads, promising players, abroad but the last couple of years they started coming back, things were picking up a bit and I think they knew as well there was a vibe around the team."
And the future too. "We took the cup around to the schools and I think when the youngsters see what happened Sunday they want a piece of that, they know that can be them some day. We had a good time Sunday and Monday, we did a lot of talking, I suppose we were allowed after 129 years."
Today in Croke Park we'll witness one of the crowning glories of the GAA season. But All-Ireland finals are just one part of the story. The accumulation of days like last Sunday in Clonakilty is just as important. Maybe even more so. There are other sports which have occasions as big as today's Croke Park finale but none of them possess the same intimate connection between those occasions and the small matches at the grassroots. The connection is real, four of the Cork team who almost defeated Mayo back in July played in the West Cork championship won by Kilmacabea.
The GAA is the great engine of communal happiness in this country. We're now entering the beautiful time of the year when the club titles are won and teams bearing trophies march into towns and villages as Kilmacabea did into Leap on Sunday night. Those victories will provide the most joyous occasion of the year in dozens of communities and I hope your club manages to enjoy one of them this year. The family and community connection, the fervency of the support and the effort put in by the amateur players make those days and nights unique in world sport. Only the GAA can do this.
Yet there won't be many triumphs as special as that achieved this day last week in Clonakilty, the triumph of a small club that never stopped believing and whose supporters kept coming out year after year after year, 129 of them as generations passed the quest on. This one club from West Cork stands for every club and county which keeps plugging away even when the results aren't going their way and honours seem a long way off. It really is a long road that has no turning.
So what's it like to follow a team that never wins anything? Don't ask the Kilmacabea people. They don't know. Not anymore.
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