THIS year marks the 20th anniversary of the remarkable trilogy of games it took to separate O’Donovan Rossa and Ballincollig in the 2001 Premier Minor county rural football final.
The Rossas eventually emerged victorious following three classic final encounters. It was perhaps fitting that the third game concluded with a majestic catch by outstanding O’Donovan Rossa full-back Dermot O’Sullivan who was crowned Man of the Match in two of the three games.
The inspirational defender rose like a beacon to thwart a last-gasp Ballincollig attack, which enabled his side to secure a memorable win.
O’Sullivan, who represented the Cork minor footballers that same year, still retains great memories of that special triumph.
“It is hard to believe 20 years have passed. We were hanging on at the end.
I remember Ballincollig launching one last attack and I was fortunate to catch a high ball before clearing to safety. There was some outpouring of relief and joy when the referee blew the full-time whistle.”
The resolute full-back knew that Ballincollig would pose a serious threat to their hopes of championship glory having played them in a non-exam game earlier that fateful year.
“I remember we narrowly beat them. I was very impressed by them. They were strong all over the field. They had very good forwards. They were three great games.
“There were some great passages of skill and football. There was plenty of physicality but no dirty strokes. It was pure raw, honest and entertaining football.”
The drama was unrelenting throughout the three games, which ebbed and flowed. Extra time couldn’t separate the two teams following the second game.
The Rossas ultimately narrowly prevailed following an action-packed third installment. Testament to the three pulsating games were the huge crowds who flocked to Castletownkenneigh over three Sunday afternoons in late October and early November. The atmosphere still resonates.
“The crowds were unreal. They got bigger as the weeks progressed. The atmosphere, noise, colour and passion were brilliant.
“I remember before the final game, the referee Denis Linehan from Nemo Rangers instructed all the players to look at the crowd and to take it all in. That was a nice gesture.
I remember both sets of players got clapped coming off the pitch by all the supporters after the second game, which meant a lot.
“All the players and coaches shared in that success. We will always have those special days to look back and reflect upon. We will always have that bond forever. All the players fought for each other and we achieved so much success. I have great memories of a truly special team and era,” he added.
O’Sullivan comes from a family steeped in Rossa footballing tradition. His two older brothers, John and Donal, also excelled over many years with the Rossas.
He can still recall the sheer emotion in the immediate aftermath of the third game, when he met his jubilant father John.
“Another huge memory is my father crying tears of joy after we won the title. He would never show much emotion. To see that passion and emotion showed what our win meant to our fans and to my family. It was a big moment for the club and for everyone involved.”
He was a key player during that very successful period of underage success for O’Donovan Rossa. The Rossas followed up their rural county final win against Ballincollig with a county final triumph against Nemo Rangers.
They also won the league final that season to secure an unprecedented treble. The ‘winning mentality’ the team possessed was a huge factor, he explains.
“We won every trophy that season. We had a really special team full of characters and great players. We were so used to winning. That used to get us over the line in a lot of tight games.
“I remember we were down by seven or eight points in a U16 final against Ilen Rovers. We didn’t panic. We came out in the second half and won.
“There was a special bond between the players. Different players got big scores at crucial moments.”
The Rossas were captained to county glory by midfielder Paddy Nealon.
“Paddy was a great leader. He got a super goal in the third game. We had a load of leaders, which was important. We had a strong squad. Every player made a big contribution.”
O’Sullivan said winning the county final was their primary objective that season.
“At the start of that year, we said we wanted to win a county final and, thankfully, we delivered. We were fortunate to have a very good management team of Don Davis, Brian Williams, John Crowley, Ger O’Brien and Anne Breen. They were so dedicated.”
He said huge mutual respect still exists between the two teams after they contributed to three engrossing games. Ballincollig had a lot of brilliant young players in that era, including the likes of Brian Cotter and Pa Kelly.
His direct opponent in the final was the talented Colin Weste, then still U16 and a Cork minor for the following two years.
The duo met up in Brisbane in 2013 and remain close today.
“We made great friends with the Ballincollig players. We had huge respect for them. We shared an incredible experience and journey over four weeks which we will always treasure.
“Hopefully, when the restrictions are lifted, we will meet up for a full reunion involving both teams.”