THIS weekend can’t come quickly enough for Daniel Hazel.
The highly-rated O’Donovan Rossa defender – who got a run-out for Cork in the McGrath Cup in January – works as a financial engineer at First Derivatives in Dublin, and every weekend he looks forward to returning home, to Skibbereen.
This weekend, he can’t wait, and for an obvious reason – the Cork SFC semi-final against neighbours Castlehaven at Páirc Uí Rinn.
Being based in the capital has its advantages and disadvantages, and while he trains three nights a week with Clontarf, who are managed by Noel McCaffrey (Jack’s McCaffrey’s father), it still isn’t the same as togging out with the lads at Rossa Park.
‘Missing training during the week is tough. I am probably the fittest I have ever been because I work harder during the week because I feel like I am letting the lads down not being there for training,’ Hazel explained.
He might miss the mid-week training session but it doesn’t show in his performances, as this attack-minded defender has been one of the Rossas’ best players in this season’s championship run.
He is one seventh – not forgetting goalkeeper Ryan Price – of a Skibb defence that has got tighter as the season has advanced. Since conceding 2-11 in the first round loss to Bishopstown, the shutters have come down – letting in 0-10 against Clonakilty, conceding just 0-7 against Beara and coughing up only 1-10 to Bishopstown.
Hazel and his fellow wing back Mark Collins (another player in good form) are surrounded by plenty of experience, and that will be crucial against Castlehaven.
‘We feed off each other in the defence. Eddie (Nealon), Paddy (Nealon) and Conor (McCarthy) have loads of experience. Between them they have an age of over 90 at this stage! If we ever have any questions they are there to answer them.
‘In fairness they help us as well. Sometimes we might not be the most defensively inclined back there, so they steady the ship.’
This same Skibbereen defence needs to be at its meanest on Sunday when they come up against a Castlehaven attack spearheaded by the Hurley brothers, Stephen, Brian and Michael, not to mention the Haven’s other scoring threats.
‘We are a bit more cohesive at the back this year. We are all on the same page but, with no disrespect to any of the teams we have played this year, we are coming up against the best forward line in the county this Sunday,’ Hazel pointed out.
‘For us to break even we are going to have to step it up another notch. Training has been going well the last few weeks, the lads are really pushing on, and it’s all about hard work on Sunday.
‘Brian Hurley is as good as there is out there. But even if you keep the shackles on him and Mark (Collins), you still have Stephen Hurley, Michael Hurley, all these guys that you have to keep tabs on, so we need to work as hard as we can to the best of our ability. Hopefully that will get us over the line.’
Hazel has lots of respect for Castlehaven, and what they have achieved over the past few seasons, especially winning two county finals in 2012 and ’13. What’s more, his sister, Jacqueline, is to marry Haven full back and captain David Limrick in December, so Daniel has an insight into his neighbour’s camp.
‘We’d talk a lot about football and from the start of the year I know Castlehaven have been training hard. They were disappointed with how last year worked out for them. They are a high calibre team and there’s no doubt that they deserve the favourite’s tag that they have on Sunday.’
Hazel is right. Castlehaven are the favourites. They have to be. But Skibb aren’t going to make up the numbers. The belief is there that they are good enough to win.
They believe they will win. And their response to the second-half fight back by Bishopstown the last time out will also stand to them.
When Town kicked 1-2 inside two minutes of the second half, the Rossas rallied. It was an impressive response in a 2-15 to 1-10 win.
‘That was something that might have been thrown at us in the past – that we are a weak team, that we don’t stand up,’ Hazel said.
‘You need the ambition and the drive to respond to big moments in a game. You also need character. If you don’t have the drive to give it everything you have, then you shouldn’t be on the pitch at all.
‘We have worked hard since last October and we need to do the same on Sunday.’
Hard work is also one of the reasons why Skibb are back in a first county semi-final since 2012 (when they lost to Duhallow). Hazel isn’t as surprised as those on the outside-looking-in to see Skibb back in the last four of the Cork SFC, as he feels they have been in the mix the last few seasons, but just couldn’t get it over the line.
‘I wouldn’t say we aren’t after improving that much. I think the rub of the green has a lot to do with it,’ he said.
‘Go back 12 months to when we lost the county quarter-final against Nemo, there are seminal moments in these big games.
‘Thomas Hegarty should have had a penalty that he didn’t get when we were two points down. It was a break we didn’t get. They went up and scored two quick points. We weren’t a million miles off last year.
‘We are working hard this year too. We know that you can’t keep doing the same thing year after year and expect the outcome to change. The definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing and to expect different results.’
It also helps that Páirc Uí Rinn is Hazel’s favourite venue outside of Rossa Park, and while the fans wanted this derby semi-final showcased at home in West Cork, the Skibbereen defender is looking forward to performing on the big stage.
‘You’re going to look forward to a county semi-final regardless of where it’s going to be played, but it’s an added bonus that it’s in Páirc Uí Rinn,’ Hazel said.
‘I have only played there a couple of times and maybe there were 800 or 900 people there, and the atmosphere was good, so I can’t imagine what the atmosphere will be like this Sunday when it’s packed.
‘It’s the main stadium in Cork at the moment with Páirc Uí Chaoimh out of action, and it’s the stage where all club footballers in Cork want to be this Sunday.’
Hazel added: ‘The occasion is great, it’s a county semi-final, but at the end of it, it’s the same 60 minutes that you have to play if you were underage. You have to go out and execute the basics right, you have to make those hand passes and those kick passes, and kick the ball over the bar. We hope that if we can, it will get us over the line.’
And if O’Donovan Rossa can pull off a shock on Sunday, and lower Castlehaven’s colours, then Skibb’s tough nut in defence, Hazel, will, no doubt, have played his part, and will head back to Dublin next week with a smile that would outshine the bright lights of the capital.