Christy O'Connor: Will old traditions stand to the Barrs?

Blues beat Ulster opposition three times in All-Ireland semi-finals in the 1980s
Christy O'Connor: Will old traditions stand to the Barrs?

Austin Stacks' Joseph O'Connor and Barrs forward Steven Sherlock in the Munster final. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

AT THE final whistle of the Nemo Rangers versus Slaughtneil All-Ireland semi-final in 2018, the Nemo supporters boomed out their Nemo chant in the stand, like a war-cry to greet another victory for their unique tribe.

Billed beforehand as a clash between Old World and New Order, Nemo ruthlessly quelled Slaughtneil in the first half of extra-time to underline why they have always been the main rulers of this terrain.

In a dogfight, Nemo didn’t score until the 20th minute.

They had only four points on the board at half-time, but Nemo didn’t panic.

Their history ensured there was no need to.

Nemo were subsequently hammered in the All-Ireland final by an outstanding Corofin team, but Saturday’s St Finbarr’s-Kilcoo All-Ireland club semi-final has a similar theme.

Kilcoo are heavily fancied, as Slaughtneil were four years ago, but, just as Nemo always did, the Barrs will also lean heavily on their tradition and pedigree in this competition.

Kilcoo may be considered the New Order now but the Barrs will believe that the empire from the Old World is more than capable of striking back. On the other hand, does any of that stuff have any relevance now?

Kilcoo have been building to this point for years now, having won nine of the last ten Down titles.

They have all the experience at this level, having won a semi-final two years ago before losing the final to Corofin after extra-time.

St Finbarr’s have none of that experience, but it would be wrong to assume that this team has just arrived at this stage overnight.

St Finbarr's captain Ian Maguire Michael Shields celebrate with the Munster Cup. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
St Finbarr's captain Ian Maguire Michael Shields celebrate with the Munster Cup. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The Nemo team which reached the 2018 All-Ireland final almost came undone against the Barrs in the 2017 county final, which Nemo narrowly won after a replay. If the Barrs had won that title, it’s highly unlikely that the Togher club would have gone on and won Munster and reached the All-Ireland final.

They wouldn’t have developed that worldliness by that stage. They hadn’t even come close to accumulating it a year later when they did win the Cork title but where annihilated by Dr Crokes in Munster.

Losing by 21 points was a chastening experience but the Barrs headed into the 2021-’22 campaign with far more knowledge of what it takes to win a provincial title.

Two county titles in four seasons also gave them the confidence to attack Munster that they would have lacked in 2018.

“It was a relief in 2018 to get over the line and win the county,” said the Barrs captain Ian Maguire after the Munster final win against Austin Stacks two weeks ago.

“Sometimes, when you get that relief, you’re not looking beyond that. We didn’t, and we got a lesson from Crokes.

“Liam Hodnett was the chair at the time and he said, “You need to learn these lessons, unfortunately. They’re unforgiving but you need to learn them. We learned the hard way.”

BATTLE-HARDENED

That hardened experience will be critical now in trying to take down a team which have designed a system they feel can deliver them an All-Ireland title.

The Barrs will know all about the lengths Kilcoo are prepared to go to win.

When they played Corofin in the 2020 final, they aped the system Jim McGuinness used with Donegal against Dublin in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final by going ultra-defensive, often having 15 men behind the ball.

In the first 11 minutes, Kilcoo turned over Corofin seven times. Corofin didn’t even register a shot at the posts until the 19th minute.

The Galway side had to wait until the 23rd minute for their first score. Kilcoo led by 0-3 to 0-2 at the interval. The game finished level 0-7 each at full-time before Corofin finally opened up the Ulster side in the first half of extra-time.

After the Derry champions Watty Grahams Glen scored 1-18 in their Ulster quarter-final against Scotstown in December, Kilcoo engaged them in another dogfight two weeks later.

The match ended 0-8 each before Kilcoo won after extra-time.

When Kilcoo met Derrygonnelly in the Ulster final two weeks ago, the Fermanagh champions set up with a heavy defensive cordon across their own ’45 but Kilcoo were happy — as they always are — to hold on to possession for minutes at a time before waiting for the right opening.

The sides were level at 0-2 each before half-time but when Kilcoo got ahead and forced Derrygonnelly to chase the game, they hammered them on the counter-attack in the second half.

The Barrs have only had sporadic exposure in trying to break down an ultra-defensive unit, but certainly not one with Kilcoo’s nous.

It will be a massive challenge but, if the Barrs are looking to lean on their history in this competition, they have any amount of it to draw on at All-Ireland semi-final stage.

In their three All-Ireland semi-final wins (1980, 1981 and 1987), the Barrs beat Ulster opposition each time.

The Barrs edged past Castleblayney Faughs after a replay in the 1987 semi-final while they defeated Scotstown in the 1980 and 1981 semi-finals. Those two games against the Monaghan side were tense, dogged and fractious contests with the Barrs winning on scorelines of 0-7 to 0-4 and 0-8 to 0-4.

It’s a whole different level now but as the Barrs head into another All-Ireland semi-final against Ulster opposition, they’ll take whatever advantage or edge they can find.

Because St Finbarr’s will certainly need everything going right if they are to advance to another All-Ireland final.

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