Article from Sunday Times on 9th October 2011
To begin, a disclaimer: none of this represents a detached view. In this case, to these eyes, such a vantage point is not available. Not now. Not yet. Maybe never. Last Sunday our club, Carrigtwohill, won the Cork senior hurling championship for the first time in 93 years. On some betting lists our odds at the beginning of the season were 100/1. It was just a convenient number: in the general view, that price didn’t capture the remoteness of our chance.
Coldly, why should anybody have rated us? Since Carrigtwohill re-emerged as a senior club in 2008 two summers had ended in the relegation final. Set aside those victories and we had just one championship win to our name in three years. Like everybody else we had dreams and ambitions but, essentially, they were private conceits. We scarcely expressed them to each other for fear they would die from exposure.
And yet it happened: these players and this management team soared above every doubt and disparagement, every setback and obstacle, and made it happen. They were rank outsiders against CIT on Sunday, just as they had been in the semi final, but on the biggest day of the year they produced their most complete performance.
In the hours before throw-in the management were struck by the calmness of the players. After five minutes of the match you could see that every player had settled. If there had been any impurity in their temperament they couldn’t have won. There wasn’t.
In sport so much is defined by self-image. The teams that win most are also the teams whose expectation to win is greatest. Creating that dynamic is the huge challenge that faces every underdog. Why should it be us? Why now and not before now? In the GAA the chemistry of that process is complicated by tradition. For generations the Cork senior championship was a monument to the GAA’s caste system: a staggering 82 titles were shared by just three clubs.
Over the last 30 years half a dozen teams emerged to break that dominance but the revolution didn’t open the door to everyone. Even in a democracy power is concentrated on a few. What good was it to us? Until we changed, it was worthless.
Our deficit wasn’t talent or tradition because we had plenty of both. Our problem was self-image. For years we believed we were too good for the intermediate championship but struggled to get out of it; once we did, we failed to convince ourselves that we belonged with the elite senior clubs. We suffered beatings that were facilitated, first, by our mentality. That changed: radically, fundamentally.
The whole culture around the team was altered. A group of players whose ambivalence to hard training had stunted their development were galvanised by an exceptional coach, James O’Connor, and an outstanding management team: Tom O’Brien, Sean Barrett, Maurice O’Donoghue and Niall Kidney. Endemic slackness was rooted out; bad habits renounced; peer pressure became a positive force within the group. They began to train like a team that could compete in the senior championship and once they had made that leap they began to see what was possible.
Some outsiders helped to open their eyes. Donncha O’Callaghan spoke to them before the first round of the championship and for the guts of two hours he held the room with stories and lessons from the Munster dressing room; doubt and defeat and bad habits were part of Munster’s story too.
Later in the season the sports psychologist Caroline Currid entered their world. She had worked with the Tyrone footballers in 2008, the Tipperary hurlers in 2010, the Dublin footballers in 2011: winners. The first session broke the ice; the second session blew them away. She opened them up to each other. Her facilitation of that process was brilliant but it would have died if the players didn’t enter into it; heart and soul they embraced it. She didn’t put anything new into them; she made them see what was already there and brought it out. Ultimately, it had to come from them.
Last Sunday they hurled with extraordinary clarity. When underdogs win it is easy for the triumph to be wrapped up and packaged in the usual adjectives: guts, heart, determination. This was much more sophisticated than that. There was nothing frantic about their intensity: it was sharply focused on hooks, blocks, tackles, turnovers and the targeted pursuit of breaking ball. From that platform they hurled with heads-up composure. Like all their other games this season the outcome was in the balance with five minutes left; they walked that tightrope with no net below.
What does it mean for us? It gives us the impetus and the responsibility to grow again and be stronger. Like many other places close to big cities our village was changed by the boom. New industries and housing estates sprung up. A lot of people came to live in Carrigtwohill without connecting with the old village. Many of them don’t have kids in the schools yet and they still have lives elsewhere. The challenge for us is to reach out to them without losing our core identity.
In every community, though, the GAA has that extraordinary capacity for harmonising the old and the new. Niall McCarthy, the ultimate warrior-hurler, played in his first senior county final last Sunday but a direct ancestor of his had played in each of the seven senior finals that Carrig had contested, going back to 1889. Niall Mac is a hero now to Carrigtwohill kids whose families originated in Eastern Europe or West Africa and who grace our juvenile teams. That is the unifying power of the GAA.
In a different way, the village was a melting pot on Sunday evening and again on Monday. Well-wishers joined us from clubs all over East Cork and some came down from the city. Thirteen CIT players turned up to pay their respects on Monday afternoon and were welcomed with open arms. The atmosphere was a cross between Puck Fair in Kilorglan and the Mardi Gras in New Orleans: indoors, outdoors, up on tables, under tables.
Everybody will have their favourite memory. Mine is a precious couple of hours shortly after tea time on Monday when Ger Horgan played his squeeze box at a wooden table on the main street and gathered round was an impromptu choir of Carrig supporters ransacking the still evening air with a blast of old Irish songs. Heaven.
On Sunday Jim Cooney, one of our great supporters, hung a sign from on overpass on the main road from Carrig to Cork. In blue and gold it read: Yes We Can. Every Carrig heart that passed under that sign started to beat a little faster. In three words borrowed from another extraordinary campaign Jim had captured our whole season and the overwhelming mood of the day.
Yes we can. Yes we did. Hallelujah.
Interview with Brian Lordan by Michael Moynihan, Examiner.
For Carrigtwohill’s captain Brian Lordan, Sunday’s Cork SHC final is a far cry from the relegation battles of recent years. From escaping the drop from top-flight hurling only a couple of years ago, Carrig are now 60 minutes from a first senior title since 1918.
“It’s a massive achievement to be in a county final, particularly after the couple of years we had in 2008 and 2009. They were real bad years for us, so 2011, a county final – some of us can’t believe it, it’s fantastic.” They’ve overcome local rivals Midleton and Cloyne to reach the decider, but Cork Institute of Technology represent a huge challenge in the final.
“When the draw came up against Cloyne it was a huge motivating factor straight away, the same for Midleton. I suppose we were
confident in ourselves, if we got things together, that we’d beat them. “Now we’re in a final with CIT we have to look at it differently. You don’t have the local derby factor as such but they’re a serious outfit. They’ve had a run of very good results and we know we’ve a massive game ahead of us. “The last time CIT played I think they had 13 players from Cork, a lot of them have played senior or U21 or minor levels. We’re conscious of that and we’ll be trying to keep an eye on their key players, though that’s probably the 15 of them.
“Still, we’re confident of our own ability and we have some big name players of our own, so hopefully they’ll match up well.”
Cork star Niall McCarthy is their biggest name. “He’s a huge figure in our dressing-room and at training,” says Lordan. “He’s done it all and we look up to him massively.”
For the younger players, the guys of 20, 21, it’s a huge deal for them to be playing with him. He helps us out big-time and hopefully we can help him as well.” Carrig have had to overcome a terrible run of injuries to get this far, he adds.
“We’ve had a shocking run– Ronan Power, Jason Barrett, Liam O’Sullivan, Seamie Farrell. Jason and Seamie are missing the final but we’re trying to use those injuries to our advantage, to win it for the lads.”
Lordan and his teammates are trying not to let the hype distract them: “As soon as we beat Midleton there was massive hype – a lot of people considered that the county final!
People celebrated that but everyone’s looking forward to the final now – the bunting is out, the flags, even a car painted in blue and gold. The hype’s massive. “We try to win every game – now there was huge motivation against Midleton, but we’re looking forward rather than back and hoping to win the next day. In fairness, people from Cloyne and Midleton have been saying to us, ‘best of luck, ye deserve to be there, try to win it now’.”
CIT’s big win over Newtownshandrum in the semi-final will make them favourites, as Lordan acknowledges. “You’d keep an eye on the other side of the draw to yourself, but you’d be looking out for all teams, really. The Divisions and the colleges you’d pay attention to because they don’t play in the league so you’re not sure how good they are. “CIT were tipping away nicely and they’ve been doing well in the last few years, they’re always in with a shout of reaching a county final. “The score they put up against Newtown was impressive, but surprising? Not really, given the players they have.”
Interview with Michael Fitzgerald by Michael Moynihan, Examiner 29th September 2011.
Michael Fitzgerald can name the gang who helped drive Carrigtwohill to Sunday’s Cork SHC final against CIT. “There’d be a group of us, myself, Niall McCarthy and Noelie Furlong, who would have been in the same class and then Jason Barrett and Niall Kidney who is a selector, they would have been a year ahead of us in school.
“We would all have hung around together and I suppose hurling was our life from a very young age. It was the only thing to do in Carrigtwohill. If you go back to national school you would have Ger Foley, who is still in the school. He was a great help and that was the start of a new set up inside there. We were just lucky to have had five or six good fellows, a base to start from.”
It was a bumpy start. The first year Fitzgerald played in Sciath na Scoil he and his pals got a hammering from a north Cork school powered by twin brothers: Ben and Jerry O’Connor. Still, he progressed through U14, 15 and 16 sides with Cork, winning a minor All-Ireland in 1998 with Niall McCarthy, Ronan Curran and Eoin Fitzgerald from Castlelyons as teammates.
With Carrig, the breakthrough came in 2007, when they beat Watergrasshill in the PIHC decider. “We lost the final in 2006,” says Fitzgerald. “And if you go back far enough we played Delanys in 2001 and they beat us in a replay. We were young then, most of us, around 19 or so and it would have been a good time to go up because we would have had a lot of years ahead of us but it just didn’t work out.
“It took us a long time to get back to where we wanted to get and we lost to Bishopstown in 2006 before
winning a year later.” The men in blue and gold had two difficult years in senior, says Fitzgerald. Being involved in relegation and things started not going our way and when you start losing games things tend to go negative.
“I was in goal in one of the relegation deciders against St Catherine’s in Midleton two years ago and I nearly lost the game when I tried to stop a ball going over the bar and a young fellow kicked it wide near the finish.” The relegation battles two years ago were watched from the sidelines. “I wasn’t part of the panel. I trained the minor team that year but I had a small bit of an argument, a
disagreement more than an argument, because I didn’t buy into what was happening. I suppose I asked myself during those games why didn’t you swallow it but something got at me and it hurt and I couldn’t accept it.’’
Then a keeper, Fitzgerald, along with Niall McCarthy, is now one of Carrig’s key forwards. “The reason I went into goal was that I got lazy. I suppose I then got up off my ass, did a bit of winter training and caught the bug again and things came back to me.’’ He knew the mindset had changed when their first-round win wasn’t commemorated with a drinking session.
“While we won, we were disappointed which was a good thing really because before if we won a first round game we’d be celebrating for a month.
“That was a good sign when we didn’t, myself included, celebrate afterwards. I suppose we used do that kind of thing, we had a few rogues around, not naming any, not naming myself but we did enjoy life but we were good to train too, more so this year and last year. With us you need to get things right, we are that kind of a group and James O’Connor has done a great job. He’s very professional and the players have responded to him.
“We had good men before him as well but he’s brought it to a new level. He’s an intercounty coach really.’’ And now it’s CIT. They’ve waited “I suppose if you said to me that we’d be in a senior final 10 years ago, I would have said yes, but five years ago? No. “ But now I think our older lads have got a new lease of life.
“I suppose our defence has been magnificent this year but on Sunday we’ll be coming up against six very good forwards whereas in previous games we had three or four guys that we could pinpoint as being dangerous.”