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'I'd never felt emotion like it. I was just so happy, my family were there and we've memories forever'

In the year of a pandemic, what’s it like to experience a county senior final win for the first time?

Kiladangan and Courcey Rovers celebrated glory in 2020.
Kiladangan and Courcey Rovers celebrated glory in 2020.

JANUARY SAW THE start of the process, trying to shake off the disappointment of the previous year and attempt to get going for the new season.

In North Tipperary, the Kiladangan club were still mulling over the setback of 2019, the first Sunday in November delivering a county senior hurling final loss, their second in four campaigns.

In West Cork, the Courcey Rovers camogie group were hoping to bounce back after a 19-point quarter-final exit in 2019. That occurred a year after their maiden county senior final appearance had ended in defeat.

Two clubs chasing a first senior title win in their respective counties, holding the same ambitions and facing the same challenges as club scattered around the country, setting out on the long road ahead at the outset of 2020.

It would prove a time of unimaginable change off the pitch, locking down the action on the pitch for several weeks and months.

Yet in a year when a pandemic disrupted everything, they experienced the moment of joy that will make them remember it for a glorious sporting breakthrough.

******************

2020 Beginnings

Christine O’Neill (Courcey Rovers player): “We’d our management in place at the start of the year but had very little done. Last year we barely won a match, we couldn’t perform at all. When the lockdown came, we didn’t have our stall set out to win a county. We were just like any other club in the country, we didn’t know what to do.

Brian Lawlor (Kiladangan manager): “Last year was our first year with that group of players, we got to the county final and lost. We hadn’t played well in the knockout stages.

“There’s great respect between Kiladangan and Borris-Ileigh and it was great to see them get where they got to the All-Ireland final but I’d say it did make it worse for us. The killing thing was that we didn’t perform at all.

“We made a conscious decision not to go back early because we knew the players a lot better, we didn’t have to flog them. We didn’t train at all in January and February, and we only went back very late in March. When lockdown came we hadn’t really started.”

brian-lawlor Brian Lawlor managed Kiladangan for the 2019 Tipperary county senior final. Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Getting Through Lockdown

O’Neill: “Shirley Moloney was on board with us this year, she’s an out and out professional. When the lockdown came, she said she’d put on a few Zoom sessions if we wanted, more for mental health than anything else. We trained every Tuesday and Saturday. They were hard sessions, she was training to be a personal trainer at the time.

“We’re a farming family, my father and my two brothers are farming at home. They’d be passing on me on a Saturday morning, I’d be flat out lifting weights, doing my ladders and training into a video. They used to think we were mad.”

Lawlor: “We started doing two Zoom sessions a week, strength and conditioning work. We didn’t even know was there going to be a championship but as a teacher I knew the benefit of guys logging in online to chat and get together.

“There’s a guy from the club Andrew Murphy who’s involved with Connacht S&C. He did one night a week and our own S&C guy Padraig Shrahan did the other.

“When it started I didn’t know would guys tune in but we had 25-30 and you could see them all in their garages and sitting rooms.“

O’Neill: “When we went back training, we were flying it. I’m 30 years of age, I’m a well seasoned campaigner, but I’d never felt lighter or faster. All of the girls felt the same. It was like something just clicked, we were stronger mentally for getting each other through the three months that we were locked down. We’d done a few quizzes, there was one night we’d a few drinks but nothing was forced. It was very natural.

“We’ve a lot of nurses involved in the team directly or their parents, and we’ve loads that were teaching from home. So we came together and made this one big video reel. There was a real appreciation of each other and what everyone was going through.”

Lawlor: “The lads really worked hard. Then at the weekend we set a challenge for them, hurling or fitness, they’d record themselves and send in their score. It was a competition and the club put up €50 a week as a prize. It got very competitive.

“David Sweeney, the lads were giving him an awful slagging, there was one based on press-ups in a minute, seemingly Sweeney tried it eight or ten times and the arms nearly fell out of their sockets.

“It just worked. The numbers were good, the atmosphere was good and it kind of carried us through the lockdown.”

Mid-summer uncertainty and the return of games

Lawlor: “The way I look at it, if you take the average senior hurler they only play for 10 years. To me the essence of the GAA is having a go at winning a championship every year. When the lockdown happened, I was devastated that our guys wouldn’t have a chance that year to win a championship. Especially because we have good players at the moment and the age profile is right.

“There were three guys that started this year that didn’t start last year. Darragh Flannery corner-back who played very well. Sean Hayes scored 0-4 in the county final. Then Bryan McLoughney scored the 1-2 in the last five minutes that won the match. I knew this year I wanted to have a look at these guys and get them involved. To think then in March, April, it could be a year gone without being able to add them to the setup.”

paul-flynn-celebrates-with-the-trophy-and-his-team Kiladangan players celebrate their Tipperary senior hurling final win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

O’Neill: “We hadn’t a clue what to expect. When we were back, we had championship two weeks later. But it was great, there was loads of matches and it wasn’t training for the sake of it. Nobody knew how long the season was going to last.

“For our first match, not having to go into the dressing room, it couldn’t have suited our mentality better. Drive up, you’re in your gear, onto the pitch, have a chat, warm up and away you go.”

Lawlor: “It was so doom and gloom when we didn’t know what was happening. Getting the news that it was opening back up, there was almost a sense of elation.

“When lockdown was over and we had four weeks training before our first championship match, I felt we were really fresh and could really push the fitness end of it. We timed it perfectly. We drew our first match against Brackens. It was a very slow start and we built momentum as the year went on which is the right way to do it. The most successful teams in Tipp over the last 20 years, like Thurles Sarsfields and Toomevara, that’s always the way they approached it.”

O’Neill: “We’re so close to the beach in Courceys, we would go to Garrettstown regularly. It turned out to be a lovely summer. For our five championship games, instead of the management bringing us down to the pitch at home, we used to meet at eight o’clock on the Saturday morning out in Garrettstown.

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“At the beach, have a puck around and they’d call out the team. We brought our tea, we had cookies, protein bars, all homemade. It was lovely and there was something very spiritual about it. Our emotions used to always catch up on us. This was all so calm this year. It was all just very natural.”

WhatsApp Image 2020-12-17 at 17.41.15 Source: Christine O'Neill

Club and County

O’Neill: “We’d Linda (Collins), Saoirse (McCarthy) and Fiona (Keating) with the Cork senior camogie. Then we had five girls on the intermediate team last year. So for every training we were missing eight and I think that was our downfall last year more than anything. This year we had all of them. That brought people on leaps and bounds.

“We couldn’t get over the numbers. A lot of our team would be employed in The Speckled Door out on the Old Head. We could have a couple missing for most trainings because of that but everybody made the effort.”

linda-collins Cork senior camogie player Linda Collins Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Lawlor: “We had four Tipp seniors, three U20s, a Tipp footballer and Darragh Egan as a (Tipp) selector in 2019. The split season made a huge difference to us. The other players love having them at training, it ups the standard.

“What happened was probably the best club championship that ever happened for the simple reason that every club had access to all their county players. It was played in the best months of the year. No team had lost players to emigration or J1s.

“We’d one guy Andy Loughnane, who came on in the county final and played very well, he was meant to be in Canada. He’s glad he stuck around now, the way things happened.”

alan-flynn-dejected Tipperary and Kiladangan hurler Alan Flynn. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Build-up to the Final 

O’Neill: “There was flags and bunting everywhere. Our journey was so different this year in that people couldn’t go to the matches before the county final, they were watching them from home. I think that was getting people more involved, every TV had the phones or laptop lined up to watch us. Our nephews and nieces thought we were celebrities because they could see us on TV. It was creating a great buzz.

“My family were able to get to the final then, we got tickets. It just changed that week, we were very lucky. Fiona Keating had won the football county the week before, to see them FaceTiming home after that was just very sad. We’re ever so grateful our family members were at our final. It was so emotional.”

Lawlor: “The completely empty stadium for games was tough, a very surreal atmosphere. The 200 people then did lead to an atmosphere for the final with the cheers for scores. That’s one thing I think Kiladangan did very well, the tickets went straight to the players so they avoided a squabble. Every player gave a ticket to someone that meant something to them. It was just great to see everyone at the match deserved to be there.”

County Final Days

20 September
Tipperary senior hurling final: Kiladangan 1-28 Loughmore-Castleiney 3-20

  • Brian McLoughney’s 82nd minute goal won a dramatic game for Kiladangan with captain Paul Flynn man-of-the-match with 0-7.

27 September
Cork senior camogie final: Courcey Rovers 5-12 Inniscarra 1-12

  • Fiona Keating was player-of-the-match with 3-2 while Linda Collins (1-5), Saoirse McCarthy (1-1) and Jacinta Crowley (0-4) all impressed.

Lawlor: “I’ve watched it back a number of times, I can’t believe how different it is from what I remember on the sideline when I was just invested in the game. When you watch it back, and this is a credit to Loughmore as well, just the pace and intensity of the game, I see why people are saying it was such a great match to have live on telly. People from all different counties were texting me about how good the match was.

“Like the Noel McGrath point at the end of normal time, he gets the ball in that position where he had nearly one foot over the line and he still managed to score the point. It’s just a testament to his brilliance as a player.”

O’Neill: “We didn’t score for the first 13 minutes, they were up five points. I thought the same thing was happening, ‘Here we are again, stage fright, we’re going to get hammered out the gate again.’ But the whole thing settled, we got a few good scores before half-time and away we went.”

Lawlor: “There’s a bit of history in Kiladangan. We won a minor in ’98 which was the start of all this with a late goal. In ’05 we won the All-Ireland (intermediate) against Carrickshock and I think we were six points down coming to the end of normal time, we got 2-1 in injury time. That was over a couple of minutes, the Loughmore game just swung on 18 seconds.

“It was the brilliance of Bryan McLoughney’s run and the perfect weighted hand pass and the perfect finish. It was an unbelievable way to win it. I wouldn’t say it was lucky, it was unexpected. I thought we had definitely done enough in normal time to win the game, I thought Loughmore were possibly the better team in extra-time but they’re the swings and roundabouts.”

Aftermath and Celebrations

O’Neill: “I was playing for the Courceys adult team since I was 14 and that was before the rule was brought in that you had to be 16 to be playing. I remember a number of years ago above in Brinny crying because I hadn’t won a match in about four years. We were just getting beaten all the time. I was wondering, ‘Would we ever do anything?’

“When the final whistle went I went down to my best friend, Sinead O’Reilly, she’s in goal and the two of us were just hugging. I’d never felt emotion like it. I was just so happy, my family were there and we’ve memories forever. We brought the cup over the bridge in Kinsale after, we went to Ballinadee and Ballinaspittle, it was just amazing.

“You have to enjoy it, get the pictures taken, because it might never ever happen again.”

CONeill Christine O'Neill celebrates after the county final with her brother Jerry. Source: Christine O'Neill

Lawlor: “When you see any of the Kiladangan guys, you can see there’s a smile on their face, they know what they achieved this year. They’ll look back at 2020, as the year of Covid that was so horrible for people that have lost their loved ones, but at least it was the year that we finally won the Dan Breen Cup. There’s something in that so there’s a small bit of hope and pride in the year.”

- Originally published at 06.30

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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