'I remember sitting down with John Small two or three years ago and I was really worried at where Ballymun was'

James McCarthy reflects on Ballymun’s first Dublin SFC title in eight years.

James McCarthy of Ballymun Kickhams before Sunday's final.
James McCarthy of Ballymun Kickhams before Sunday's final.

JAMES MCCARTHY IS basking in the achievement of winning his second county medal and reflecting on tough days of the past.

McCarthy was 22 back in 2012 when Ballymun Kickhams bridged a 27-year gap since their previous Dublin SFC success. They claimed Leinster glory and fell to St Brigid’s of Roscommon in the All-Ireland final, a defeat he once said he would “take to the grave” with him.

In the eight years since he enjoyed plenty of glory days in the blue jersey, winning seven Celtic Crosses, but trophies proved harder to come by with his club despite their obvious talents.

They lost county finals to St Vincent’s in 2013 and 2017. McCarthy started to wonder if Ballymun’s chance had come and gone.

“I remember sitting down with John Small two or three years ago and I was really worried at where Ballymun was and [we weren't] kicking on here,” he admits.

“We hadn’t won another championship, the team looked like it was getting older and I was getting worried.”

In Brendan Hackett’s third year in charge, things finally came together. They were helped in no small way by Covid-19, which derailed the inter-county season and put the focus back on the club.

McCarthy said he hadn’t trained as much with his club since that run to Croke Park and it’s little coincidence they benefited from having characters like himself, Dean Rock and Philly McMahon at every training session.

“It was mad, we started training this year and I got to know all these young lads well, brilliant footballers, brilliant, brilliant footballers,” he says.

“We just got to train together properly for three or four months and you could see us getting better every game and we just knew something was snowballing and it’s great to win it.

“In other years we might have gone into our shells and not come back in those games. That gave us great confidence, the way we roared back from big deficits and turned it around. You can’t buy that in a team. If a team does that, the confidence and lift it gives you.

paddy-small-james-mccarthy-and-john-small-lift-the-trophy Ballymun Kickhams’ Paddy Small, James McCarthy and John Small lift the trophy. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“You train together for months and you actually get to see these guys day in, day out and get to know them really well. You realise how good they are, as good as is out there.

“Andrew McCaul, who’s a young lad and is the most laid-back young fella you’d see – doesn’t give a bollix – just comes on and plays.

“He scored a goal against Na Fianna and won a peno there today. It’s a great way to play football – not to worry about it, just go for it.

“Huge credit also has to go to Brendan Hackett. He had a tough two years. Last year we were coming back from the five-in-a-row, which is not ideal, and the year before, late back again. I remember he met up with us last year and said, ‘Look, give everything you have next year’ and we did.”

Those on the outside may not appreciate how difficult it was for the Dublin players to come straight back into club action after a physically and mentally taxing inter-county season.

Often times McCarthy carried one niggle or another into the All-Ireland final and returned into the club set-up fatigued – something they didn’t have to deal with this time.

“It’s tough, it’s tough,” he says. “A couple of years I was really disappointed with how I came back, a couple of times, and I think a lot of the guys were as well.

“It’s hard. You’re coming back a lot of the time broke up, injured, carrying something, you’ve been on the go for eight years, playing replays against Mayo or Kerry and you’re just tired and it’s really hard to try and get going.

“The evenings are cold, it’s wet and it’s going to be sloppy so it is hard but we’ve no excuses. We’ve always got what we deserved the last couple of years. We underachieved and that’s the fact of the matter.

“We’re not going to finish up with this group and not win another championship. It’s just a pity, I’d love to have a crack at the Leinster and the All-Ireland again. That’s an itch you’d love to scratch but, look, that’s the way the year has ended. Maybe next year we’ll get another crack.”

He identified the Division 1 league final win over Ballyboden St Enda’s last December as a crucial step in the evolution of this team. It took place shortly after death of beloved clubman Declan Small, whose two sons were in magnificent form again on Sunday.

“We limped out of the championship again last year, which was embarrassing in the way we went out against Na Fianna,” says McCarthy.

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“We didn’t have that much training for the [2019] league games. [The final] was the time John and Paddy Small’s dad passed away. We had a meeting, hoping we’d put a bit of heart back in the club so we said let’s have a good crack at the game.

“It was a big game for us but probably not for Ballyboden. It was a dirty December night and we got stuck in and won a tight game. It meant a lot and brought a bit of heart back into the club – everyone back, unified front and I think that made a big difference to us. We went on from there.”

They saved their best for last in Sunday’s 1-19 to 0-8 victory over holders Ballyboden St Enda’s.

“It’s really sweet when you just work hard – and we’ve beaten all the big teams this year; it’s a great championship to win. We’ve beaten Ballyboden, [Kilmacud] Crokes, Na Fianna, Thomas Davis. I don’t think anyone can argue with us being the best team this year and it was a great way to win it in the final.

“It’s the best I’ve ever played with a team in a final, we were just so dominant,” he adds.

Including with Dublin?

“All the matches I’ve ever played, that was the best as a team I’ve played with in a final,” he reiterates.

james-mccarthy-and-leon-young-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle McCarthy and Leon Young celebrate at the final whistle. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I didn’t see it coming now. I thought it’d be going down to the wire but when you hit a team with a storm early on like we did…I suppose the big thing for us all week was, we were saying we’re not going to sit back.

“We played the final a few years ago and it was a sickening feeling afterwards, we didn’t even have a go at the game. We lost by a goal to Vincent’s, we just said, as a team, no way that could happen today and we just played front foot football all over the place, squeezing, put bodies on the line. It made a big difference for us.

“We’ve been playing really good football for the past few weeks, in great form. John Small’s probably been playing the best football I’ve seen him play. Paddy Small’s playing really well. There’ll be other lads who’ve put their hands for a [Dublin] call-up.

“Look at Cameron McCormack. He’s been outstanding all year in the championship. What a footballer for a big man – skill, good hands – so I think these guys could get a chance with Dublin as well, which would be great.

“Some of the football lads played there on our team, Leon Young and Carl Keeley wing-back is brilliant, tenacious. Darragh Conlon in the corner marking Collie Basquel, probably the best forward in Dublin this year, you see guys doing that, it gives guys like myself a big lift so it’s just great to see.”

Naturally, he is firmly in favour of the split season model being retained and echoed the sentiments of his manager by saying he’d ‘love a crack’ at the Leinster championship with this team.

“It would be great. Why wouldn’t you? It’s a special competition, having a crack at Leinster and who knows? I’d love to. Hopefully, others teams keep batting for it and it might change minds in the powers that be.

“I really hope that’s the way the GAA goes with it now, splits the season now, club and county. I think there’s a lot of talk and there seems to be a lot of support behind it. I think the way it goes…you watch those club games, they’re brilliant like.

“They should be out there and everyone should be watching them so hopefully that goes forward. From experiencing both sides, playing with Dublin and coming back, it’s very hard to do it the way it was. This way, I think, is the way forward. It’s fair on everyone.”

It won’t be long before he hops back on the inter-county carousel and sets his sights on another tilt at the Sam Maguire. 

But regardless of what happens in the coming months, 2020 will go down as the year Ballymun Kickhams climbed back to the pinnacle of Dublin club football. 

And that means the world to James McCarthy.

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Kevin O'Brien

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