Two East Cork hurling clubs, one big day in Croke Park

Two East Cork hurling clubs, one big day in Croke Park
Luke Duggan Murray of Russell Rovers (Cork) gets a hand pass away under pressure from Adrian O'Tuaithail of Micheál Breathnach (Galway) in the 2020 AIB GAA Hurling All-Ireland Junior Club Championship Semi-Final in Kilmallock, Co Limerick on Sunday.Pic: Don Moloney

AND so it has come to pass, two small clubs side by side deep in the heart of East Cork heading to Croke Park together to play All-Ireland hurling finals.

The smart money was on Fr O’Neill’s and Russell Rovers to come through last weekend’s semi-finals,O’Neill’s against Tooreen the Connacht champions and Russell Rovers against Michael Breathnach’s, the champions of the same province.

There might have been some silly talk, not in O’Neill’s and Russell Rovers, that their passage to the big day out in headquarters might be smooth enough.

Well, that was far from being the case and at this time of the year against any opposition you are never going to get things easy.

Chris Ruddy of Russell Rovers (Cork) gets a hand pass away under pressure from Cian Mac Giolla Bhride of Micheál Breathnach (Galway) in the 2020 AIB GAA Hurling All-Ireland Junior Club Championship Semi-Final in Kilmallock, Co Limerick on Sunday.Pic: Don Moloney
Chris Ruddy of Russell Rovers (Cork) gets a hand pass away under pressure from Cian Mac Giolla Bhride of Micheál Breathnach (Galway) in the 2020 AIB GAA Hurling All-Ireland Junior Club Championship Semi-Final in Kilmallock, Co Limerick on Sunday.Pic: Don Moloney

Let’s start with O’Neill’s at O’Connor Park in Tullamore, a splendid venue with first-class facilities.

Around the Midlands town last Saturday morning there was a recognizable buzz as Cork and Mayo registered cars sought parking spaces.

With these club championship games the attendance figures never soar to any significant heights.

What you are getting are mostly supporters of the clubs concerned and maybe a few neutrals.

And so it was as O’Neill’s and the champions from the West of Ireland took the field.

O’Neill’s had the better of the early exchanges, led by five points at the break and looked fairly comfortable even if they had not set the world on fire.

But early in the second-half things changed and changed dramatically The Cork and Munster champions lost two key players, players who had been an integral part of their journey all season.

Mark O’Keeffe went first, Billy Dunne followed and in both instances the dismissals looked harsh.

The complexion of the game changed, the men from the West saw their opportunity and went for it.

They had the arrears reduced to just two points as the contest entered a critical stage.

Fr O'Neill's Podge Butler shakes hands with Tooreen's David Kenny after the game. Pic; Tom O'Hanlon
Fr O'Neill's Podge Butler shakes hands with Tooreen's David Kenny after the game. Pic; Tom O'Hanlon

They lost a man too, again we thought rather harshly but still had that vital numerical advantage.

It was a mighty rearguard battle now for O’Neill’s, a real backs to the wall job as they clung on to their dream of returning to Croke Park.

Tired bodies had to be put on the line, in some instances boys became men and they held their nerve and composure to seize the day.

And maybe that was the best way to do it. Illustrate what they have become, a bunch of players who are battle hardened to deal with anything that comes their way.

We could mention every player on the team, the importance of their bench too but we will single out Mike Millerick, what a family, four brothers starting, another a sub, what a day it will be for that family, Dan Harrington, Kevin O’Sullivan, Deccie Dalton, a quartet who starred last Saturday.

The loss of O’Keeffe and Dunne would be immense against Tullaroan but we’ll have to wait and see.

Tullaroan, with the Walshs, will be another mighty test but O’Neill’s will believe that they will find a way again.

In the middle of last week this proud club lost a great stalwart, Brendan Aherne was one of their own, somebody who followed them through thick and thin, a person hugely respected and loved by all.

He would have been so proud of the effort in Tullamore last Saturday.

They will re-group this week under their excellent coach James O’Connor and equally fine management team of Dave Colbert, Bryan Sweeney and Bob Murphy and, have no doubt, they will be ready.

And what a day it will be for Podge Butler and Eoin Conway, returning to Croke Park 15 years after winning the junior club crown.

But that is the story of these club championships, players of an older vintage giving it everything in what might well be a final fling.

Fr O'Neill's Ger Millerick with Tooreen's Fergal Boland. Pic; Tom O'Hanlon
Fr O'Neill's Ger Millerick with Tooreen's Fergal Boland. Pic; Tom O'Hanlon

And what about O’Neill’s very near neighbours from up the road in Shanagarry, Russell Rovers.

They had to go to extra-time to win their semi-final and without one of their star players, Josh Beausang.

And the manner of their victory was even more difficult, having to equalise from a difficult free with virtually the last puck of regulation time.

And Bud Hartnett was not found wanting, stepping up to the plate in the absence of Beausang.

This fellow comes from a great sporting family too in that part of East Cork.

The story of Russell Rovers is even more remarkable.

Two years ago they were winning the junior championship in East Cork for the first time.

Now they are in Croke Park on an All-Ireland final day.

This is Hans Christian Andersen stuff, a fulfilment of every player’s dream to play on that field of dreams.

Their coach is Noel Furlong from Carrigtwohill who a short few years ago coached O’Neill’s to county intermediate glory.

That is a great story in itself.

Next Saturday week the hurling homes of Ballymacoda, Ladysbridge, Shanagarry and Garryvoe will be deserted.

And you have to know those places to understand what hurling means to them.

The trek to Jones’ Road will begin early in the morning.

It will be a pilgrimage that could not have been envisaged by so many but since Sean Kelly introduced these All-Ireland junior and intermediate club championships, that’s the way it has been.

Some of the association’s smallest but most vibrant units getting their big chance on their biggest day.

Croke Park will have seen nothing like this before, two small East Cork clubs shouting their heads off for each other.

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