ONE of the great notes in Eamonn Sweeney’s book The Road to Croker, that followed the 2003 inter-county championships, was the point he made at one stage about towns and villages around Ireland that become known mainly as home to a footballer or hurler.
There are the really obvious references of course, like any football person passing Ventry will immediately think Paidí, but it works on some level all over the country, where a small, otherwise unremarkable place can become forever associated with just one name.
The thought struck, as his brilliant and slightly mad post-game interview aired on radio last weekend, that it’d be more or less impossible to put any kind of measure on what John Fintan Daly has done for Knocknagree football (and the Duhallow division) over the years, on the sort of impact he’s had on generations of players and people and an area that hasn’t exactly always been a hub for successful teams.
Seriously, imagine if Daly hadn’t basically devoted entire swathes of his life to developing football teams in North Cork, if he’d decided 40 years or so ago that his time might be better suited to another sport or club or pursuit altogether.
Duhallow football has always had potential footballers but it’s hardly been a consistent hotbed for incredible talent or focussed winning mentality and Daly basically changed the entire ambition of the area for a fair few years.
It’s 40 years ago now that he had the notion of bringing Knocknagree and Ballydesmond minors together to form Pobal Uí Chaoimh; the team beat Nemo Rangers in a county final later that year, more or less oblivious to the idea that a country team coming from nowhere to win a minor county was out of the ordinary in any form, high instead on the confidence Daly planted in them from the start.
About 10 years later he took over the Duhallow senior team and over the first four seasons in charge lost one final and one semi-final and won two county titles.
It’s probably one of the great overlooked coaching jobs in Cork football actually.
This was a four-year period where Cork contested four All-Ireland finals remember and it’d be considered a fairly golden era in local club football where very decent teams like Nemo, Barr’s, Castlehaven and Skibb for starters were all contesting counties and All-Irelands.
Duhallow hadn’t a massive contingent of Cork players — Danny Culloty was the only consistent Cork senior — but they had a coach who was able to convince the group that they were as capable as any club team in the county and then get them organised and playing well enough to make it happen.
Think now of that group, including a handful who made the leap from the Pobal Uí Chaoimh minor team, who were given the opportunity to compete for and win really significant trophies from a place where that wasn’t the done thing.
You can almost thrown in Daly’s Cork U21 All-Ireland win in 1994 as an aside here, where he put together a really strong team that won Cork’s only Munster title of that decade, a team that again had a Knocknagree connection with John Buckley as corner-forward.
There are periods where you wonder if there’s an overemphasis on the impact of the guy on the sideline compared to the ability of the players and then there are such clear examples of just one person making the difference that you can’t deflect from that cult of the manager narrative.
Could any other one person have made Duhallow footballers win two county titles in Cork’s most competitive era?
Daly went back to his home club a few years ago – he’d won counties and All-Irelands down in Kerry with Milltown/Castlemaine in the meantime – and has turned the club into serial, unstoppable winners since.
They’ve won three divisional junior titles.
This year they won the Paidí Ó Sé tournament, the divisional and county and Munster and All-Ireland titles.
They’ve done it with some brilliant open attacking football with a lot of emphasis on the skills and kicking of the ball – look at their scores worked up since they came out of their division: 1-17, 2-19, 2-13, 2-19, 5-15, 2-16, 1-17, 2-9, 3-13.
They pushed their corner-back up on their opponent’s sweeper in the final last weekend – he set up one goal and scored another.
The standard of their interplay and scores in the game were genuinely impressive.
The level of detail in the preparation was senior club standard at least.
The players were expecting Multyfarnham to come back at them in the final because they’d noted from the video analysis that they’ve been doing that all year.
This wasn’t one of those accidental All-Ireland wins either, where a team sort of falls over the line having achieved their ultimate goal much earlier; Daly had been referring to All-Ireland potential for a couple of years in the same way a Kerry footballer might mention them.
It does seem that kind of mentality that’s Daly’s culture here, where he convinces a group of players through sheer force of personality that there’s a journey worth taking and that it’s more likely to end well with him in charge.
But there’s a method and a knowhow and a basis for improving players and making them teams as well that’s evolved and lasted a lot longer than most managerial eras.
This idea of junior and intermediate All-Irelands has been a success, providing a day out in Croke Park for players and families in clubs that wouldn’t crop up in normal circumstances.
It’s been important too, with Sean Cavanagh only this week comparing his experience with his club Moy to his three All-Irelands with Tyrone.
Knocknagree footballers got to be All-Ireland winners at Croke Park for a day last weekend, a feeling that will last a lifetime and that’s been the lifetime’s work and ambition of one man who’s come to define a village in that GAA sense.