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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 29 January, 2020

'Success touches everyone and it’s uplifting' - the Cork duo who finally landed club glory in 2018

For All-Ireland winners Michael Shields and Noel O’Leary, it was a year to remember.

pjimage (3) Noel O'Leary and Michael Shields both got to celebrate club glory in October. Source: INPHO

WHENEVER THEY CHOSE to hang up their boots for good, it was nailed on that they could reflect on careers that yielded a fine haul of medals, successes and golden moments.

Their days with Cork had ensured that. Michael Shields and Noel O’Leary shared in the ultimate honour in Gaelic football in 2010. They had a bunch of good days on Munster and league stages as well.

Noel O'Leary, Michael Shields and Daniel Goulding Noel O'Leary and Michael Shields at Cork's All-Ireland homecoming in 2010. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

At underage level Shields was part of an All-Ireland U21 triumph with Cork in 2007, O’Leary a member of the last successful minor side from the county in 2000.

And still something would have nagged away at them in retirement if they had not addressed a particular record. Their clubs, where they started and will finish and with whom they sought desperately to succeed.

O’Leary called it a day with Cork in October 2013, Shields finished up more recently when he bowed out last January. 

They slipped back into their original roles, local life commanding their total focus.

Shields with St Finbarr’s, a traditional Cork city powerhouse chasing a first senior football crown in 33 years at the outset of 2018. Their honours list was stacked with triumphs – 8 wins in Cork, 4 in Munster and 3 on the All-Ireland stage – but the barren spell over the last three decades was a frustration.

O’Leary with Cill na Martra, the Gaeltacht community close to the Kerry border who were knocking hard on the door at intermediate level and chasing their first ever adult county title.

And then on Sunday 28 October came their red-letter day. 36-year-old O’Leary tasting glory in the intermediate starter, 32-year-old Shields successful at last in the senior main course. A pair of county medals that were long coveted and finally secured.

“I’ve been playing for so long and you know in the back of your head that you don’t have too many more years left,” says Shields.

“I started playing senior for the Barrs when I was 16. Missed a bit in 2008 when I was in Australia but came back that year, we were relegated the year previous, just got back in time and we won the intermediate. 

“It’s just to get that medal and say you have it. If you didn’t have it looking back in a couple of years time, you’d have a little sense of regret and frustration that you put in all those years of hard work and you’ve nothing to show for it. So from that point of view, it was just really satisfying.”

Ian Maguire celebrates with the trophy Michael Shields (back right) celebrates St Finbarr's victory. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It was a long time coming for us,” says O’Leary.

“You certainly would have thought we’d get there before then but it’s never that straightforward. You lose players, things go into transition and it seemed further away then at times. We’re extremely lucky now to be honest to get there.”

Cill na Martra players celebrate winning Noel O'Leary (front right) after Cill na Martra's victory. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

How difficult was it to reach the summit? They can reel off the different ways disappointment visited them.

Shields played his first county senior final in 2009, losing out by a point a week after being defeated in an All-Ireland decider by Kerry. He was part of a St Finbarr’s side beaten in the final again in 2010, couldn’t manage to reach the last four for the next six seasons before losing out after a replay to Nemo Rangers in 2017. All those setbacks came against the backdrop of operating for a club with such a storied history.

“You would be aware of the tradition. Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Christy Ryan, Charlie McCarthy and these fellas, they’ve won everything imaginable in the game. It’s been frustrating that for the last 20-30 years, we couldn’t get a county in the bag.

“I’m on the road a long time really, it’s been a rollercoaster. We’d different managers, different ideas and some of them didn’t work. I got frustrated, felt that maybe we wouldn’t get there.”

O’Leary has spent half his life lining out in pursuit of success with Cill na Martra’s primary club side. He lost a county junior final in 2002 but they went up a grade due to a few sides being promoted that year before falling short in an intermediate final in 2009. After that they lost four semi-finals, seemingly locked in a cycle of disappointment.

“We seemed to be doing fairly well during the year but then you had a situation where you’d a three month break,” outlines O’Leary.

“Coming into games then, we’d the edge gone off us and guys can fall off the bandwagon a small bit in the intervening period. We didn’t seem to be in the right frame of mind coming into semi-finals. That’s experience to be fair, they’re young lads. This year we realised what was involved.”

Nollaig O Laoire with John Corkery and David Thompson Noel O'Leary in action for Cill na Martra in the county final. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

A fresh voice was central in Shield’s mind in propelling them into the winners enclosure with Kerry native Ray Keane, a brother of the county’s new senior boss Peter, at the helm.

“To be fair when Ray came in, it was just a completely new perspective. We’d a lot of minor and U21 players coming through who’d won counties. We knew the talent was there, just a matter of getting a different voice and opinion.

“It was just what we needed. He’d no allegiance to anyone. In his first year we lost to Nemo in the quarter-final but you could see the kind of spark in us that night that there was something there about us. I knew we were a coming team and that doubt I had a couple of years previous was definitely gone.”

Paul Kerrigan and Michael Shields Michael Shields in action in last year's county senior football final replay. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

They persevered and were rewarded. For Shields his first season removed from the inter-county environment saw him better understand the summer fixture droughts that afflict club players.

“You hit June, you’re kind of waiting for something to happen and all of a sudden there’s nothing going on for three months and you’re kind of scratching your head. It’s a funny period really, I wasn’t used to it.

“We’d fellas playing hurling as well and fellas playing with Cork. We were down numbers so those kind of things, you’re not used to. But one thing I have to say is we’ve a great squad. A lot of young lads, they really kept the whole thing running, training was never dull anyway.”

For Cill na Martra they finally broke their semi-final barrier in early October against Mitchelstown and swept to victory by ten points in the final against Aghabullogue.

“Sure 2010 was a relief and the thing about the club final was we’d been knocking on the door year after year, it was just a huge sense of relief to get there,” says O’Leary.

“I’d definitely put it up there with the All-Ireland win. It’s our first county. It’s right up there at the very top. Myself and my brother Colm and Kevin O’Sullivan the trainer, we soldiered together for a lot of years and probably thought the day wouldn’t come.

Colm O Laoire and Nollaig O Laoire celebrate winning O'Leary with his brother Colm after the game. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“My family would be very much GAA orientated. My father and mother have followed us to every game down through the years. It was a great day for them. I’d another brother Donal Óg who’d played up until a few years ago as well. Even the likes of him who would have liked to have been there, he was still as happy for us as if he’d been playing himself. That gives great satisfaction.”

The St Finbarr’s celebrations burn brightly in Shields mind after they won by three points in a thrilling clash with divisional outfit Duhallow.

“The standout moment was the Barrs crowd. When Eoghan Finn got a goal, the whole place erupted. I just thought it was going to be our day from then on. I remember chatting to some of the older crew before, they told me if you win, you walk up Barrack Street behind the Barrack Street Band and the captain gets lifted up on shoulders coming up the street with the cup.

“We did exactly that, the way it should be done. There was bonfires there, it was just a nice occasion, nice feeling to be part of it. Something you’ll look back on in years to come. There’s a good load of senior players who have been there since 2009.

“It’s more a satisfaction that we’ve got it now, it’s in the bag. There’s no kind of worry that in years time if we ever step away that there’ll be regrets there, which is great for us.”

For the pair there was personal satisfaction at witnessing a former county compatriot succeeding in the club arena.

“Shieldsy, there’s no denying in saying it, he was probably one of the best guys that I’d played with,” remarks O’Leary.

“A fantastic footballer and just a great warrior on the day as well. It would have been a shame if he didn’t get there. I’m delighted for the man. He certainly deserves it.”

Noel O'Leary celebrates with Michael Shields Shields and O'Leary in action for Cork against Kerry in 2010. Source: James Crombie

“Noelie and the Cill na Martra lads, similar to ourselves, they were knocking on the door and I like seeing teams like that get over the line,” says Shields.

“I’d be always rooting for the team that’s put in the hard yards. You look at Limerick hurlers this year in the final, I’d say the whole country was going for them.”

And they can reflect on the year gone by while looking forward with anticipation to a new season.

“It all reminded me of the All-Ireland in 2010, it had just been so long,” recalls Shields.

“The older crew in the management and the supporters live for it and were dying to see us get over the line and praying to see this day come along.

“For all them you’d be really relieved they got to get that experience and that joy again. We won the county now, we got to the top, hopefully we can stay here for a bit longer and make it count.”

“We are a small club, numbers are tight,” explains O’Leary.

“To have the achievement of winning a county is huge for us. They take an awful lot of pride in it being so small. Success touches everyone and just to see that, it’s uplifting.  The homecoming was outstanding, especially the young people who aspire to it going forward.

“People are still on about it. You’d think it would wear out a bit but it’s still as fresh today as it was a few months ago.”

“It’s kind of a no-brainer in a way, not to have a go off that. We’re up premier intermediate now. Whether I’ll stay injury free and all that is another thing, but I’d certainly like to be involved in 2019 and if I can offer something well and good. If I can’t happen to make it happen on the field, I’ll be there supporting anyway.”

2018, their year of long-awaited local success.

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Fintan O'Toole

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