This story originally appeared in our 16-page county final preview in this week's Southern Star sports section which is available in shops across West Cork now or online via our digital edition ➡ http://bit.ly/2Z9T9Z1
MIKE ‘Haulie’ O’Neill knows all about county final weeks. He’s been here before, first as a player and then as a manager. The trappings around the game have changed but the target remains the same: win the final.
Clonakilty is buzzing right now. The town is on countdown to 3pm this Sunday. Red and green flags and bunting adorn the shop fronts and houses of the expanding West Cork town.
Clon’s players and management remain laser-focussed on the job at hand, so does Haulie O’Neill actually get to enjoy any of the build-up?
‘Today, in particular, most of the lads are not around the town so it is not in their faces as much,’ the Clonakilty boss said.
‘Things (media build-up) have changed because when you go back to the 1980s it was Jim O’Sullivan who would be standing in front of you with his little notepad and writing things down. There was no one tape recording or whatever back then. The whole thing has evolved but that is part of what the game is now. The media has to make a living and we have to put up with it when it happens!
‘To be truthful, if our (preparation) work isn’t done by now there isn’t much point in doing much more. What we will be looking for on Sunday is a performance. That is what we have looked for all year, that the lads will play and will perform. If that has us ahead at the final whistle, so be it. If it doesn’t, then so be it.’
As a player, O’Neill featured in Clonakilty’s 1983 and 1985 county final losses before helping guide the Brewery Town to glory as part of ‘Casey’ O’Donovan’s management team alongside Aidan Scally in 1996. O’Neill was also in charge when Clonakilty defeated this weekend’s Premier Senior decider opponents, the Barr’s, to claim the Andy Scannell Cup in 2009.
‘I suppose you would have to look at the Barr’s and say, at the start of the year, that they were one of the favourites,’ O’Neill said.
‘The Barr’s are one of the top three along with Castlehaven and Nemo Rangers who appear to be ahead of the rest. Now, Clonakilty find ourselves in the county final. I don’t know how it is going to pan out but the Barr’s are definitely the favourites and are in the county final on merit.’
But Clon have earned their place in the showpiece decider, too. They qualified for the knock-out stages from a group that contained the Barr’s, Ilen Rovers and Ballincollig before seeing off Duhallow and Douglas.
‘Have we improved? I would like to think so. That would be our aim while being involved with a team. The (overall) aim being to improve a team before you leave them, that’s the target for anyone who gets involved,’ O’Neill said.
The fact that Páirc Uí Chaoimh was the venue for Clonakilty’s victories over Duhallow and Douglas during the knockout stages represents another bonus for a young West Cork panel heading back to Cork GAA HQ this Sunday.
‘It is always nice when you get to play in one of the top pitches in the country,’ O’Neill agreed.
‘When looking back on their careers, every player likes to be able to say they played there. The thing I would see as the most important thing about playing in Páirc Uí Chaoimh is that the youngsters who go to the games, the future of our club, will strive to emulate the guys they see playing there. That is the most important thing. That cannot be underestimated, particularly for a club like Clonakilty. Tradition can be a milestone around your neck at times but there is (huge) tradition in this club.’
Straight-talking, honest and to the point, O’Neill has never changed. Neither has his ability to inspire a group of players to exceed expectations. Clonakilty’s current crop of senior footballers have one more to mountain to climb.
There could be no better person in charge of the group than Haulie O’Neill.