BY DENIS HURLEY
KINSALE ladies’ football manager Micheál O’Connor jokes that he was dragged south ‘kicking and screaming’ by his wife Carol when the couple returned to Ireland from the USA some years back.
Had they settled in O’Connor’s native Roscommon, things might have been very different compared to what did happen – the club won county and Munster junior titles in 2016 and then backed that up with the equivalent intermediate championships in 2017.
While All-Ireland glory has proven elusive, for the moment at least – Dublin’s St Maur’s denied them in last year’s junior decider and Dunboyne of Meath beat them (2-13 to 2-12) at the start of December – O’Connor feels that the strong bond which has developed among the squad will stand them in good stead as they make the step up to senior level.
‘This bunch of players have come along together and they’ve just bonded so well,’ he says.
‘The younger girls – now, there are no old girls, but the very young ones – have really gelled well. Last year, for the All-Ireland junior semi-final, we had a trip away to Mayo and that weekend, I could just see how they were reacting.
‘They’re a real team now, they do everything for each other. They just love being together.
‘After training, you might think they’d go straight home but they’re there in groups, chatting away, they enjoy each other’s company.’
This year, Kinsale were hosts for their All-Ireland semi-final, against Galway’s Maigh Cuilinn. Goalkeeper Aisling Judge relates how the bonding was closer to home.
‘We had a team day out at Kinsale Golf Club the week before the semi-final,’ she says.
‘The golf club very kindly invited us out, we spent an hour or an hour and a half on the driving range.
‘There were a few golf buggy races as well, and then it was into the clubhouse for a meal. It was really nice, we had had a challenge match in the morning against St Val’s U21s and it was out to the golf club then.
‘We had gone from the county into the Munster quarter-final and semi-final, which came quick enough. There was a gap then as the final was postponed but we were never quite sure when it was being re-fixed. There was a period of three or four weeks where we didn’t play, but you couldn’t plan to do anything either as you wouldn’t know when you’d be playing.
‘After that, we had only two weeks before the semi-final so there wasn’t much opportunity to squeeze in the team bonding and we hadn’t had a chance all year.
‘You need to take the pressure off when it’s been so serious and relentless for most of the year and for last year as well. It’s important to take a break from training and just be together and have a laugh. That’s the best part of playing football.’
Having won the junior county in 2016, the prevailing wisdom might have been that an adaptation period would be needed at intermediate. O’Connor certainly admits that he didn’t envisage what transpired.
‘I was thinking that it’d be hard to win the county, looking at some of the teams,’ he says.
‘There were a couple after coming down from senior, and then Rosscarbery had lost the 2016 final to Bantry by a couple of points, we knew they would be a serious team again.
‘You take Beara too, who had a couple of West Cork senior players on their team. If you had told me at the start of the year that we’d win the county, I’d have been happy, but in fairness to the girls, getting to the All-Ireland and playing those extra games, hard games, stood to them.’
The bigger occasions required some getting used to on the part of the players, but Judge feels they did that, and is looking forward to doing similar in the top grade in 2018.
‘I’d be completely comfortable talking to a journalist or standing up in front of a crowd, that’s not a problem,’ she says.
‘But, when it came to football, I would have always been someone who struggled with a bigger crowd, even as a kid.
‘Some of my team-mates would have been similar – now, by the same token, others would have played with Cork and been comfortable with the crowds – but that was the big difference in the team this year.
‘Last year, in the Munster final and certainly the All-Ireland final, the occasion got the better of us and we didn’t perform.
‘This year, we were able to accept that, for the big games, this is what it is and embrace it and use the energy from the crowd.’
• In the 2017 All-Ireland intermediate club final, despite Orla Finn (1-5, 3f) and Sadhbh O’Leary (1-3) combining for 1-8, Kinsale lost by a single point to Meath team Dunboyne, 2-13 to 2-12; the second year in a row the West Cork team has lost an All-Ireland football final.