By John Harrington gaa.ie
In a St Finbarr’s hurling team studded with precocious young players, Damien Cahalane is very much the grizzled veteran.
He’s still only 30, but he’s been fighting the good fight now for a long time, 14 seasons to be precise.
They knew from a young age in the club he was made of the right stuff, which is why he was thrown into the fray earlier than most.
“Yeah, I was 16, I wasn’t even 17 yet,” says Cahalane. “Con Roche, a Barr’s legend, gave me my debut.
“My hurling career was lucky enough to take off after he gave me my first opportunity.
“Up until that, I wouldn’t have played any real top-grade underage hurling in Cork. Con gave me my chance and I was lucky enough that I took it. It put me on the radar for other setups maybe.
“My first game I was marking Paudie O’Sullivan, who was one of the real top hurlers in the county at the time.
“In the semi-final when we played Newtownshandrum I marked Ben O’Connor, probably one of the top hurlers in the country. Those were great experiences for a young kid who had been watching these guys in the stand a year beforehand.
“To be able to pit yourself against them and play against them was an opportunity and was special.”
Winning their first county senior hurling championship for 29 years has meant an awful lot to every St. Finbarr’s club member, but perhaps for Cahalane more than most.
He’s put in countless hours of hard graft to make it to the top of the mountain and endured no shortage of set-backs along the way, so the view from the pinnacle of Cork club hurling when he finally made it there was very satisfying indeed.
“It was unreal,” he says. “It’s something that you always dreamed of.
“A number of us have been on the road 12 or 13 years. You’re kind of wondering ‘Is it going to happen at any stage? It was unbelievable to get over the line in the end.”
All the more special too that when it finally came he got to share the moment on the pitch with his brothers, Conor and Jack, two more key cogs in this St. Finbarr’s team.
“Growing up at home, there was seven of us,” says Cahalane. “Three lads and four girls. The girls are probably putting us to shame in terms of their medal haul and what they have done in their games.
“But it’s something that you dream of growing up to be able to play with your brothers.
“The older you’re getting, I was 30 this year, you’re wondering can you prolong your career, hold on and play with Jack. I had played with Conor at that stage.
“It’s something that’s nice. You know what you have got with them. You know you can trust them on the field. It probably adds to it a bit.”
When a club wins a county title for the first time in 29 years, chances are they’ll be happy with their lot.
Such is the tradition in some clubs though that it comes naturally to hungrily look around for what else they can win.
St. Finbarr’s have two All-Irelands and four Munster titles in their honours won list.
So you can be sure they’ll eye Sunday’s Munster Club Hurling Championship semi-final against Ballyea with expectation rather than just be happy to be there.
“From the history and tradition of the thing, you don’t know how often this opportunity is going to come up,” says Cahalane.
“We won a county this year and that was obviously the fruits of hard work, this year and all up through the years at underage, but you don’t know when that opportunity is going to come again.
“Cork county championships are hard-won and you’re in a position now where you can be happy with what you’ve done or you can challenge yourself to pit yourself against the champions from other counties and see how far you can go.
“I’d like to hope that we’re in the second bracket, that we can try and challenge ourselves to push on a bit.
“We have a massive challenge ahead of us against Ballyea, we know that, but it’s up to us to do the work to make sure that we’re in a good position to perform on the day.”
By Cian O’Connell for gaa.ie
The fact Inniscarra possessed such promise and potential meant recent championship defeats at adult level were even more painful.
So this year in a drama laden Cork Intermediate Hurling Championship, Inniscarra simply found a way. Late goals and stirring comebacks. Inniscarra survived to glean silverware.
Inniscarra chairperson Liam Linehan knows all about the challenges faced on and off the field. Involved as manager previously, Linehan is happy to be involved in an administrative role and is fully aware of the work being carried out in the juvenile ranks.
“That has been the history of the club for 20 or 30 years really, we have always done well at underage, we have played at a high level premier one and premier two level with most of our underage teams bar a few,” he responds.
“It was always the predicament and it was always said why can we not carry the teams that promised so much underage when we went into adult level, that we never delivered. That was always a bugbear for people within the club.”
Paul McCarthy and his management team steered Inniscarra to glory. “Like any club we would lose players, but the talent was always there,” he adds. “It just took something different to get it out of the lads. We had outside managers before, we just didn’t get to the holy grail. This time having the promise of the underage players finally fulfilling their potential was very satisfactory.
“There is a lot of work gone into underage, like any other club that is successful you have to put in the work at ground level. You have to have the work done with your underage to keep the supply chain going. Huge work went on at underage, it is paying off now.
“We won a county U21 in 2017, we won a minor county in 2017. Sometimes there probably is a bit too much expected of an 18 or 19 year old. Just because he is a good minor he is expected to go in to do his stuff at adult level whether intermediate or senior.
“Sometimes we expect too much out of young fellas. It is after taking a few of them there three or four years to mature, to get to that level. Now they are really driving on. Hopefully we can keep it going now.”
In sport fortune frequently favours the brave. So Inniscarra’s passion and perseverance was rewarded eventually. Linehan acknowledges the fine margins between winning and losing – the feeling of accomplishment that will sustain them throughout the winter.
“It’s fantastic, it’s probably the result of a lot of years work,” he states. “There has been lots of fellas involved, different managers. This year we had four new faces come in from outside, they set their stall out at the start of the year. They asked the lads to buy into it, maybe it took them a while to buy into it, but when they did they all worked hard.
“Sometimes you don’t always get what you deserve, but I think these guys got what they deserved because they worked extremely hard. We rode our luck a little bit in a few games during the year. The semi-final was probably gone from us, we got a lucky break off the post. A ball came back off the post, Colm Casey again was on the end of it, he buried it, and we beat Ballinahassig.”
Then came the epics against Castlemartyr. “Time was up they got a free about 50 yards out, but conditions on the day were horrendous to be fair, it just drifted left and wide,” he adds. “It was blown up. After that you were saying maybe our luck is turning. We rode our luck again in the replay.
“We were the better team in the first half, we should have been more up, but weren’t. They came back, they took over to be fair to them for 15 minutes. We were two points down three or four minutes into injury time.
“We got a 65 and it was worked across, Colm Casey ended up getting a pull on it, and it ended up in the net. There wasn’t even time for a puck out. If you were to write a story about winning a county final with a fairytale ending that would probably be it.”
Important matches are arriving thick and fast with Sunday’s AIB Munster Club IHC clash against Roscrea at FBD Semple Stadium edging closer.
“A few parishioners said to me, it took us 19 years to get back into a final, then we had two finals in the one week,” Linehan laughs. “It created a huge buzz around the parish.
“The GAA community is one thing, then you have the people outside looking in that sometimes don’t appreciate the work that goes on in a GAA club or a sports club.
“The amount of support we had for both finals and the semi-final too, we saw people at matches that you’d never expect to be there. It took on a life of its own really. Bunting and flags started going up around the place, advertisements and signs wishing the team well.
“All of a sudden it took a foothold in the whole place, I think the place is still buzzing to be honest. That is the end of one chapter – the county final – it is one championship over and now we are looking forward to the Munster Championship.
“Nobody knows what it is in store. Roscrea are county champions because obviously they are a good team the same way we are county champions and a good team. They had the benefit of a game against Ballysaggart, we will go out to do our best, to put on a performance.
“If it is good enough to win we will be delighted. If you perform and you aren’t good enough then you cannot have any complaints.”
To play a competitive fixture outside of Cork brings a challenge that Inniscarra will embrace. “Unbelievable, it is all a new experience,” Linehan remarks. “For everyone in the club it is a new experience, for the players too. I know a few players would have played with Cork at different levels and age groups, they’d have played outside the county.
“For the vast majority of the players and club members it is a whole new concept. You only treat it as another game of hurling. The big thing for us is to be the best we can be on the day, to let that see where it takes us.
“Historically we got to county semi-finals or county quarter-finals and it was always a case of not performing, sometimes beaten by the better team, and other times not performing.
“I think not performing is the most disappointing thing, if you perform let us see where that takes us. We are not going to beat the world, but if we perform we will be very hard to beat. Hopefully that will transpire at the weekend.”
Cork Senior Football Coach: Kevin Walsh.
Cork Minor Football Management
Manager Ray O’Mahony (Éire Óg)
Selectors: Daniel Cronin (St. Mary’s), Eamon O’Connor (Kildorrery), Daire O’Sullivan (Naomh Abán), James Condon (Glanworth).
Goalkeeping coach Declan Murphy (St. Finbarr’s)
Cork Minor Hurling Management
Kieran Murphy (Sarsfields)
Selectors: Martin Coleman (Ballinhassig), David Long (Kinsale), James Nyhan (Cloyne), Colman O’Reilly (Shanballymore).
Coaches: Seán Óg Ó hAilpín (Na Piarsaigh), Gary Gray (Sarsfields).
Logistics: Denis Murphy (Glen Rovers)
See Full list of Team mentors here
In what were probably the worst conditions imaginable St Finbarr’s put 29 years of heartbreak behind them to finally capture the Sean Og Murphy with a stunning display against old rivals Blackrock.
Key player in that win was Ben Cunningham turning in a man of the match display hitting 0-9 and was a worthy recipient of the 96FM/C103 GAA Sports Star award for October in association with the Rochestown Park Hotel.
Ben was delighted to be honoured but was quick to acknowledge that winning the title was very important “it was a big win for the club after such a long wait and we are delighted, and I am accepting this award on behalf of all of the team who played their part in the win.”
As for the day itself “it was very special and with so many family connections it made it better again.”
Ben’s dad Ger was the coach, his brother Sam played as a 2nd half substitute, while his cousins Eoghan Finn and Brian Hayes last year’s overall award winner were also important players on the team.
County Board Chairman Marc Sheehan was fulsome in his praise for Ben and his team mates, “I would really like to congratulate Ben on a truly exceptional display that was key to the win, and also St Finbarr’s on their contribution to the Championship as they were outstanding in all their games and of course we wish them the very best of luck in Sunday’s Munster semi-final.”
Marc also thanked 96FM/C103 and the Rochestown Park Hotel for “their continued support and promotion of these prestigious awards and also supporting the Board in other means as well it is greatly appreciated.”
Tom Tobin Rochestown Park Hotel and Kieran Mc Geary 96FM also congratulated Ben on his award and wished him well in Sunday’s Munster semi-final.
Ben’s family were in attendance along with club officials Diarmuid O’Meara, Billy O’Shea and John Cremin, while County Board officers Francis Kenneally and Pat Horgan were present along with Isabel Keane 96FM/C103.
Ben now joins the previous monthly winners in the race for the overall award.
St Finbarr’s Sam Ryan was the January winner while Ballygiblin’s Joseph O’Sullivan picked up the February award, there were joint winners in March with Rochestown College and Beara Community College honoured for their All-Ireland wins in hurling and football, Handball was acknowledged in April as All-Ireland doubles champions Brendan Fleming and Donncha O’Connor were honoured and in May Ben Shorten was the recipient as Ballingeary were crowned Comortas Peile Na Gaelthachta Senior Champions for the very first time.
While the June award went to Colm Lyons on his appointment as referee for the All-Ireland Hurling Final, Cork Camogie star Libby Coppinger was the July recipient.
Erin’s Own Kieran Murphy was the August winner, with Blackrock and St Michaels dual player picking up the October accolade.
The 2022 Banquet will now take place on February 10th next in the Rochestown Park Hotel where GAA President Larry McCarthy will be the guest of honour.
Two other awards will be presented on the night The Kieran O’Driscoll Youth Award and the Donal Lehane Distinguished Career Award.