DESPITE his side eventually succumbing to defeat against O’Donovan Rossa following three pulsating Premier Minor county section football finals back in 2001, Ballincollig team captain Robert Ryan still looks back on those occasions with great fondness.
The team captain was one of a host of star players on the Ballincollig team who contributed enormously to three action-packed and enthralling county final ties almost 20 years ago.
“They were great games and happy days. I have very fond memories.
"It is hard to believe nearly 20 years have elapsed since those famous three games. It was a huge adventure for our players, management team, families, and supporters,” the former captain said.
The two sides played each other three times over a four-week period in late October and November 2001 with all the county finals being played in Castletownkenneigh.
In the week preceding the third encounter, Ryan and his Coláiste Choilm team-mates played St Fachtna’s De La Salle in a Corn Uí Mhuirí encounter in which a number of players from both Ballincollig and O’Donovan Rossa also featured. St Fachtna’s emerged victorious.
There was no escaping the presence of Skibbereen players in his life back then. When he began studying at UCC, he encountered a number of Rossa players once again which he recalls with affection.
“When I started my first week of college in UCC and I was just getting my bearings, three members of the O’Donovan Rossa team all walked into the lecture hall. Naturally the first topic of conversation was our epic three-game saga.
"It was all good-natured. It helped to establish a bond with them and we began firm friends.”
Looking back at the three games, Ryan admits he was surprised Ballincollig acquitted themselves so well against a well-renowned team like the Rossas, who had won the U16 county final with the same nucleus of players.
“We weren’t the greatest team on the age. We didn’t achieve much success at underage level.
"Young lads like Colin Weste and Pa Kelly [both U16 that season] were huge additions to our group. Five of those lads [Weste, Kelly, Stephen O'Donoghue, Brian Cotter and Conor Barrett] went on to start with the Cork minors in 2003.
“The Rossas were very strong. They moved the ball so fast and their movement was really good. They had a lot of really good players.
"I always felt we were battling to stay in contention and hanging on during the course of the three games. We had great spirit and heart. We also carried a huge goal threat through the likes of John Kelly and Colin Weste.
"Colin and Pa Kelly just got better as the games progressed. Looking back I always felt they were the better side. That season was a huge journey for us.
“At the start of the season, we didn’t really have aspirations of county final glory. We just took it game by game, whereas Skibb would have targetted county final glory at the start of their season.
"Our lads gained hugely from that season. It was a huge help in the development of our players. Getting to a county final and playing so well against a hugely talented Skibb team was a big boost. It gave players the belief that they could compete at the top level,” he added.
Ryan was a very skillful and naturally talented footballer, who made to the club's senior ranks, and later became better known as a corner-forward with the club's intermediate hurlers. He was one of the star players for that Ballincollig minor team from his centre-forward berth.
He advanced to represent the various adult Ballincollig teams with great distinction but moved to Australia and London before eventually relocating to Killarney. He continues to play hurling with the Dr Crokes club in Killarney with whom he tasted county final success last year.
“I never won a county title during my playing career in Cork. My first county title came while playing in London. It was nice to win a championship title in Kerry last year.
"I would have preferred hurling, but at that time we were very poor in hurling. It was a huge honour to captain that talented team.
"The crowds were huge at the three games and they got bigger as the weeks progressed. The games were fast and exciting. It was great to be part of a really special few weeks. It is nice to look back and reflect on those days.”
One of the star players on that Ballincollig team was talented full-forward Colin Weste, then 16 and known throughout Cork as a deadly marksman.
“I remember playing against Colm Cooper when he was breaking through and his talent was evident. Colin was quite similar.
"He was just a natural. He was pure magic. He was a big player for us that season.
"Colin and John Kelly were big players for us in the full-forward line. We played a lot of direct football.
"Our game-plan was simple, get the ball into them as fast as possible!”