three in a row

'We're a small, little club in Kildare, it's tiny. To be going to Croke Park is massive'

Johnstownbridge are vying for their third All-Ireland title in-a-row this weekend.

NOT MANY CLUBS across the country can say that they’re preparing for a third All-Ireland final in-a-row. And at that, bidding for a third title.

Tanya Johnson Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

But that’s the case for Kildare outfit Johnstownbridge.

In November 2015, they lifted the All-Ireland junior title and 12 months later, retained their crown. 2017 brought a new year, a new challenge and the jump to intermediate proved a mammoth one. It also differs in that it’s not played in one calendar year like junior.

But here they are, with an All-Ireland intermediate final to contest in Croke Park on Sunday, all going to plan weather-wise. A third national decider in-a-row.

“Intermediate is a total different ball game from junior,” Johnstownbridge goalkeeper Tanya Johnson tells The42.

“It’s great though, it’s brilliant for the club. We’ve a great team, we still have most of the same girls. There’s girls that have gone travelling and left us but sure we wouldn’t be where we are today without them.

“Even physicality-wise and skill, you have to get the ball into your hand first thing. In junior, you might get two or three taps on the hurl but you don’t have a chance in intermediate. It’s totally different, a much faster pace.”

It’s been no easy path to get to the showpiece, but the Kildare outfit have shown true hunger and perseverance to reach their goals. En route, they’ve beaten both of last year’s finalists, Eglish and Myshall.

The Johnstownbridge team Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

They beat the reigning All-Ireland champions Myshall to the Leinster crown so that brought a huge boost in confidence levels before they were pitted against Tyrone kingpins Eglish in January’s semi-final.

With their campaign usually wrapped up before Christmas, Johnson admits it was quite the wait and at times, difficult to stay motivated across that period but they pulled together to book their final spot.

“They had that bit of experience too, they’re a good dogged team,” she says of Eglish.

“We knew what we were coming to meet in Ashbourne that day. It was a tough game, the wind didn’t help anyway, the conditions on the day. We pulled through in the last few minutes, just couldn’t wait for the final whistle to go really.”

And as that whistle sounded, there was one thing on everybody’s minds: an All-Ireland final date on the biggest stage in Gaelic games, Croke Park.

There’s a few on the team who have played there before — in Kildare’s 2016 All-Ireland football final win over Clare — but for Johnson and the majority of others, it’s a first.

“It’s brilliant,” she explains. “There’s only the handful, four or five anyway, that have played a game in Croke Park.

“I just think it’s four white lines. It’s like you’re on the pitch in Johnstown. When you cross that with your teammates and all, don’t mind looking up at the stands. You’re there for your club. Just look around at the girls, we’re after doing it all year so just hopefully, we can do it.

Johnstownbridge celebrates as Jenna Murphy lifts the trophy Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s huge. We’re a small, little club in Kildare, like. The supporters are just unbelievable and for them to be coming to Croke Park with us is massive, for such a small club. It’s tiny, it really is.

“We have the one hotel in the place. John O’Neill has his hands full with us! He looks after us fairly well. We have the clubhouse and there’s Balyna for the women’s football, the lads football and our underage coming up.

“It’s based around that. You either play camogie or football in the village and that’s that.”

And like every rural club across the country, there’s a real family feel to the team.

“Oh absolutely, sisters and cousins, the background team like,” Johnson — who works in food science — grins.

“The sideline at training does be ridiculous sometimes! But it’s great to have everybody down, nobody minds them or anything, it’s great to have hands on.

“Other clubs would be fighting for it all the time. People give up their time and come down to the pitch like just to come and help out.”

Opposition on Sunday comes in the form of Galway and Connacht champions Athenry. Relegated from the senior grade in 2016, they bounced straight back up with a big year at intermediate level.

Tanya Johnson and Lorna Hannon Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

In 2007 and 2009, they were denied All-Ireland senior titles by Tipperary’s Cashel, and with some players still involved from those losses, they’ll come to the capital hoping to right the wrongs.

Johnson isn’t fazed though. They’re not focusing too much on their opponents, but rather themselves.

“We can only control ourselves,” she concludes.

“You can only control your own mind and worry about yourself and your attitude, what you’re bringing. There’s the 15 girls that are going to be starting on the day, the subs and all, you just have to have your head right going.

“It’s only 60 minutes of a game. It doesn’t matter where it is, Croke Park or down the back end of nowhere. You have to just win the game.”

Simple as.

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