BY KIERAN MCCARTHY
WHEN the SOS call went out, he answered.
To protect their future Clonakilty went back to their past, as Mike ‘Haulie’ O’Neill was parachuted in mid-season as the club’s new senior manager after three disastrous defeats in the county senior football championship that has left the club’s senior football status in jeopardy.
In the aftermath of the third round loss to St Nick’s (1-8 to 0-7) in June – that followed on from defeats against both Newcestown (0-18 to 0-8) and O’Donovan Rossa (2-15 to 0-10) – the senior football team was at an extremely low ebb, standing on the precipice of relegation to the PIFC ranks.
Change was needed, and the club turned to former county championship-winning manager O’Neill, who guided Clon to the biggest prize in Cork club football in 2009.
Now, he has one game – against Aghada this Sunday in the Cork SFC relegation final – to save the senior status the club has held since 1932, the longest of any GAA club in West Cork.
The Clonakilty butcher admitted he couldn’t turn down the club’s approach.
‘What if things did go wrong and the club did lose its senior status, there wouldn’t be much point in me talking about it if I could have done something to help. At least this way I will know whether I was able to help or not,’ O’Neill explained.
The noises since former Cork senior selector O’Neill took over mid-summer have been more encouraging, as the senior management team was reshuffled.
Joining O’Neill as coach was Neil Deasy, manager of the Clonakilty U21 footballers that completed the West Cork three-in-a-row earlier, while the management team put in place earlier this year was redeployed as selectors.
Whether this shake-up works or not will be determined by the outcome of Sunday’s SFC relegation final against Aghada.
If Clonakilty lose on Sunday in Brinny they will be relegated to premier intermediate football ranks – a nightmare scenario for this proud club.
‘It’s impossible to quantify what relegation would do to the club,’ the Clon manager mused.
‘The signs won’t go up outside Ahamilla that we are closed for business. We are staring into the abyss but we don’t actually know what will happen if we fall. Is it a soft landing or is it a long way down? We don’t know, and we don’t want to find out either.’
He added: ‘There’s no doubting that relegation would be difficult to take.’
It’s no surprise that O’Neill says the players’ effort and commitment since he took over cannot be faulted – ‘it was a matter of getting them to pull together’ – but the reality is it’s these same players’ poor displays that has landed this team in this predicament.
· These are the same players that have scored just 0-25 in three county SFC games this season – an average of just over 0-8 per match.
·This is the same Clon team that has conceded 3-39 in their three championship losses – an average of 1-13 per game.
·This team currently props up Division 1 of the Kelleher Shield, with just two wins from nine games, and an average of less than 0-10 scored per game.
·These are the same players who have scored just two goals in 12 league and championship matches this season.
Basically, this Clon team has not been good enough in this season’s championship but that must change this Sunday, or else the trapdoor will open.
‘What’s important is that this group of lads go out, perform and play to their potential. After that you have no control of what happens,’ O’Neill said.
‘A lot of these players have played at the highest level, they have won things, they have played in big games and they know what’s needed to win. We need them to give everything they have.
‘We have fellas who are willing to die for the cause and they need to produce it on the day. There won’t be one guy who will walk off the field on Sunday who won’t be after giving everything.’
Whether ‘giving everything’ is enough against Aghada will be known on Sunday evening, but Sean White’s return is a massive boost, as he missed the loss against St Nick’s, while Thomas Clancy’s injury problems are behind him (he wasn’t fully fit against Nick’s after rushing back from injury).
On the downside there are injury concerns over David Lowney, who injured his hamstring in the recent county Premier 2 minor semi-final win against Castlehaven, while Timmy Anglin picked up a leg injury in the county JAHC quarter-final loss to Cloughduv.
It’s been a disastrous SFC campaign so far for Clonakilty but they have their destiny in their own hands and they have one last chance to protect the senior club from a shock relegation.
The boats are burned, there is no going back. It’s now or never as Clon contest their first SFC relegation final. But O’Neill has backed his troops to react and save their season.