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'There's a lot of mountains in Kerry, the same in Wicklow. We know how to handle mountainy men'

John Evans is following in the footsteps of fellow Kerryman Mick O’Dwyer in Wicklow.

Kevin O’Brien reports from O’Moore Park, Portlaoise

MICK O’DWYER’S MEMORABLE reign in charge of Wicklow between 2006 and 2011 lit a fire under football in the county and brought a national spotlight on the Garden County for the first time in decades.

Mick O'Dwyer Source: Garry O'Neill/INPHO

O’Dwyer reached unimaginable heights as a player and manager with Kerry, won Leinster titles with Kildare and Laois, but he looks back fondly on his spell in charge of Wicklow.

Under O’Dwyer they lifted the Tommy Murphy Cup in 2007 and enjoyed a thrilling journey through the backdoor in 2009 with wins over Fermanagh, Cavan and Down. It represented their best ever run in the All-Ireland. They were a kick of a ball away from taking on Tyrone in Croke Park in the quarter-final that year, falling narrowly to Kildare in the last round of the qualifiers.

Former Tipperary and Roscommon boss John Evans took over from Johnny Magee in the winter, after Wicklow won just one of their nine league and championship games in 2017.

Under Evans, Wicklow failed to win a game in Division 4 this season. They lost four and drew two games, arriving into yesterday’s encounter against Offaly without a win in the province for five years.

But just like they did under O’Dwyer, Wicklow saved their best for the championship and sealed a Leinster quarter-final against the All-Ireland champions with a five-point extra-time victory over the Faithful.

Rory Finn and John Evans celebrate at the final whistle Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

What is it about Kerrymen that can bring the best out of the Wicklow footballers?

“We are lucky,” Evans explained on the field afterwards with a grin. “There is a lot of mountains in Kerry, the same as in Wicklow. We have a common denominator there. We know how to handle mountainy men.

“The one thing I have learned since I have come to Wicklow is that they have been down. A lot of apathy, a lot of no hope given to them. But these bunch of lads have come in and a lot of them are quite young.

“They have put in their shift and they are beginning to believe. That is the big thing I was emphasising today, throw off the shackles and play. Their first half was very nervous, very tentative.

“Tentative from both sides really, both teams had seven or eight wides. It was poor misses. But as the game went on we were the team that was growing. We were the team that were getting confidence. You have to play games to gain confidence. There was only one team in it in the extra-time.”

Mark Jackson celebrates at the final whistle Wicklow goalkeeper and top-scorer Mark Jackson Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

John Evans and Mark Jackson celebrate at the final whistle Wicklow's John Evans and Mark Jackson embrace at the final whistle Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Goalkeeper Mark Jackson put in a majestic performance for the victors. He kicked seven points from placed balls and saved a penalty from Nigel Dunne at a key stage in the second-half.

“Well, that’s a gift he’s got and Rob Lambert is a terrific goalkeeper as well, but Mark Jackson’s kicking is one thing and that save was excellent too,” said Evans.

“I think the big thing was that you may talk about Mark Jackson’s kicking, but his penalty save was what kept us in the game.

“It was a hugely important stage in the match and it gave us renewed energy as well. We had that defiant energy and I think that was important.

“Overall, I’m tremendously proud of the lads because we’ve worked under really difficult circumstances in training and through three belts of snow.

“The scoring is what I’m impressed with – there was a good few frees, but we’re running at teams and there was a couple of other chances we could have put away as well, but that was a bit of inexperience.”

Leighton Glynn was one of O’Dwyer’s on-field lieutenants during that spell a decade ago, but now the 36-year-old is part of Evans’s backroom team.

Leighton Glynn Wicklow great Leighton Glynn Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Dublin are formidable opponents for Wicklow and realistically they’ll be looking to limit the damage when they return to Portlaoise in a fortnight.

While Glynn and his Rathnew clubmates stunned St Vincent’s in the Leinster club championship last November, he’s wise enough to know that taking down Jim Gavin’s troops is an altogether more difficult proposition.

Glynn just wants his players to soak up the occasion.

“We’re going into a task like no other facing probably one of the best teams in history but we’ll go out and we’ll give it a lash,” he said afterwards. “We’ll gain experience from it and then go at the qualifiers if you’re beaten.

“Chances are you will be beaten being honest but you go out and those lads will be hopping mad to play Dublin and that’s great, whatever the result is they have a bit of belief going into it.

“It’s the biggest game of their lives probably in front of the biggest crowd they’ve ever played in front of and sure isn’t that what football is all about, it’s great.”

Cian Donohue tackles Darren Hayden Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Evans called for the game to be played at Aughrim but later that evening O’Moore Park was confirmed as the venue for the last eight clash on 27 May. Regardless of the result against Dublin, Evans is determined to leave Wicklow football in a better place.

“I’ve only one thing to say – if Dublin want to beat us by 10, 20, 30 or 40 points they can do that, but we’ll play our football and we’ll develop our football over the next three years and that’s what I’m looking at. Not only one game,” said Evans, who is also in charge of the Wicklow U20s.

“I’d be delighted if they came to Aughrim as well. It’s a wonderful, beautiful field. Dublin is only up the road and if they came to Augrhim it would be a huge boost for football.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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