BY DENIS HURLEY
IT’S a measure of the longevity of Gabriel Rangers’ Pat Nolan that, when he was part of the Cork minor football panel in 1989, quite a few of his current team-mates hadn’t been born.
Now 48, Nolan had made his debut for his club’s junior side as a 17-year-old the previous season. The garda – stationed in Donoughmore and living in Lombardstown, near Mallow – is honest enough to admit that, back then, he didn’t expect to be playing a part in a county intermediate final 31 years later.
‘You always aspire to it,’ he says, ‘and you think you will get there some day, but I didn’t think I’d still be playing at 48!
‘I’ve been involved with some good teams that were good enough to compete, we were there or thereabouts, but West Cork was extremely strong and there were a lot of good junior teams, some of whom went on to senior.
‘We just had to bide our time and we got there in the end.’
Having won a first Carbery junior A title in 2010, Gabriels lost the 2014 final before regaining the title in 2016 and going all the way to county glory. Having reached the quarter-final in their first year at intermediate, the Schull/Ballydehob side fell at Round 3 to Youghal in 2018, but this time round they have managed to make it to Saturday evening’s decider against Knocknagree in Páirc Uí Rinn (7pm).
‘At the start of the year, we were just looking at the first round and the Adrigole game,’ Nolan says.
‘In the past, we wouldn’t have beaten them too much, even when they were junior, so we knew it’d be tough.
‘We got over that and then it was Kinsale in the quarter-final, we prepared for that and got over it and it was the same with Dromtarriffe.
‘We never looked beyond any game, because there’s usually only a kick of a ball between teams at this level.’
Nolan played the entire semi-final against Dromtarriffe at full-back. Dennis Bergkamp once said that the first ten yards were in the player’s head and Nolan employs a similar philosophy to counteract the passing years.
‘To be honest, as you get older, you get a bit cuter,’ he says.
‘You don’t do as much unnecessary running – not that I’d be able to anyway! – and you save yourself for when the ball is in your area.
‘You do your bit and you don’t go too mad looking for too much work, you wouldn’t last like that. Game-management is an important thing.’
Apart from Nolan, there is a wide spread of ages across the Gabriels team.
‘If you take me out, it’s pretty young,’ he says.
‘You have Mark Cronin, Liam Hegarty and Darren O’Mahony, who are around the 32 mark,’ he says.
‘Then the likes of Ger O’Callaghan and Eddie Goggin are around 25 or 26 and you go down again, there are a good few that are 20 or so and two just out of minor this year. The likes of Kieran Roycroft, Danny McSweeney, Jordie O’Brien and Killian O’Sullivan have all come through since the junior win in 2016.
‘When numbers are tight, you need fellas available to you and we’ve been lucky this year that we’ve had good availability and not too many injuries, Stephen O’Mahony is out though and Cathal Newman is in Canada.’
And through it all, Nolan has been a constant presence, with retirement never seriously considered.
‘For the most part, I’ve never really thought about it,’ he says.
‘There are times when you might pick up an injury or something and you think, “I can’t go through that again,” but you quickly forget about that.
‘As long as I’m playing and enjoying it and feeling that I can add something, I can’t see why I wouldn’t keep going. I think a lot of players finish up way before they should and end up regretting it.
‘The travel isn’t much of an issue either. A lot of the boys are in Cork, especially during the college year, so there might be 14 or 15 travelling down, we’d meet in Farran and travel together.’
All the years and all the miles will be worth it if Nolan can join his team-mates on the winners’ rostrum on Saturday night, but he accepts that Gabriels will go in as underdogs against the Duhallow side, who succeeded them as junior champions in 2017.
‘We have to be realistic,’ he says, ‘all year, Knocknagree have been putting away teams easily and running up big scores.
‘They’re the kind of team that can have you beaten in the first 20 or 25 minutes so we know we’re up against it, there are no two ways about it.
‘We beat them in the junior semi-final in 2016 but they have improved a lot since then and they beat us in this year’s league.
‘It would take an unbelievable performance but stranger things have happened. We’ll go out and do our best and it that’s not good enough, it’s not the worst thing in the world.
‘We’re lucky that both teams are promoted to premier intermediate, that was a great carrot for winning the semi-final, it nearly made it as important as the final.
‘In the final, we’re playing for the trophy and it would obviously be nice to win. The objective for every team is to progress to the next level and luckily enough we’ll get that opportunity.’