KIERAN McCARTHY caught up with Ilen Rovers’ U21 captain Stephen Leonard after the club’s South West title success
STEPHEN Leonard would much rather his teammates dominate the headlines – but his scoring rate demands otherwise.
Any player who scores well over 50 per cent of his team’s total en route to winning a divisional championship deserves the accolades.
He also scored the last-gasp goal against Clonakilty that kick-started their campaign.
He was the top scorer in the competition. And the best player.
He’s also Ilen Rovers captain.
‘I’d much rather stay in the background,’ he says, days after his latest man-of-the-match performance, this time scoring 1-3 as Ilen Rovers won the South West U21A FC for the second time in three seasons.
Leonard finished with 4-12 after three U21A FC games. Ilen hit 5-28 in total. He accounted for over 55 per cent of their scores.
In Ilen’s three matches – against Clonakilty, Castlehaven and Carbery Rangers – he was named as the star player in each Southern Star match report.
That’s not coincidence.
‘I think the newspaper gives me a good look – but there are another 14 players on the pitch as well,’ the 20-year-old points out.
‘You always see the fella who gets the scores get the write-up, the fella at the end of the move but look at us against Carbery Rangers in the final, Paddy O’Driscoll, Jack Collins and Eoin O’Driscoll were all unbelievable in defence. These are the fellas that deserve the headlines.
‘I would much rather that a few other fellas would get the write-ups too. I can’t stress enough that we’re a team.’
Donal Collins, Tom Bushe, Kevin Minihane, Leonard himself, this young Ilen team has leaders all over the pitch, and they were needed in a run that saw them beat Clon 1-10 to 0-12 after extra-time, get the better of Castlehaven 2-7 to 1-4 before fighting off Carbery Rangers 2-11 to 0-11.
‘I think we played better in the first two games compared to the final but it’s the sign of a good team to win when you’re not playing your best,’ says Leonard who is one of several U21s also on Ilen’s senior team.
‘It’s great for the club as well because the seniors aren’t going too strong but this will give everyone a boost. You can’t beat winning silverware.’
This is the second Ilen U21 team to win this South West title in three seasons – but Leonard feels the class of 2018 would just edge out the class of 2016, and that was a team that went all the way to a county final which Leonard missed through injury as St Finbarr’s won.
No surprise then that the Ilen forward is targeting the county this year. First up will be either Ahán Gaels or Nemo Rangers in round one.
‘It’s a big deal to win the West Cork – but we have done this before and we want to better ourselves,’ the second-year CIT student says.
‘We got to the county final before so that has to be our goal, to get there again. If we get there, we’ll obviously want to finish the job.
‘I think this team is better equipped than two years ago. We all get on very well and that’s very important. We don’t have any individuals. This is a strong group.’
This is also Leonard’s last year at U21 grade. From here on in, each game could be his last.
‘It’s only in the last few weeks that it’s hit home that we’re in our last year U21 and who knows when we will be in a final again so we need to make the most of this now. It’s senior football all the way after this year but we don’t want the U21 to end any time soon,’ the former Cork minor says.
The realisation that his U21 days are almost over – he turns 21 in late November so misses out on next year by a month – also helped focus the mind this season. It’s a similar feeling for others in the same boat.
‘Last year, to be honest, we were messing too much and I think we realised after that we wasted an opportunity so we don’t want to make the same mistake again. And we’re not,’ Leonard says.
‘Last year’s team was nearly better than the year before, the team that won it, but we got caught out by a very good Dohenys team that went on to win it then.’
Ilen’s dream almost ended at the quarter-final stage too this year when Clon led 0-12 to 0-10 in the final minute of extra-time at Leap.
Leonard had kicked seven of Ilen’s ten points – but his most important score of the championship was about to come.
Sixty metres out, he set off towards the Clon goal. Needless to say, we know what happens next.
‘It could have been a very different season if that didn’t go in,’ Leonard admits.
‘I got a bit of a notion. I thought, “We’re gone here fairly lively if something doesn’t happen now”.
‘I put the head down, hoped for the best and got lucky in the end.
‘I had asked the ref how much was left. He said 30 seconds. We were two points down so one point wasn’t going to be enough. It was now or never.’
As it turns out, it was now. Leonard scored. Ilen won. And they haven’t stopped winning since.
Leonard hopes that winning run continues through the county series and shortens the summer which, like the past few, will see him working at Baltimore Sailing Club.
It’s a rite of passage in Baltimore, he says, to work there, his home away from home for the summer.
He’s a fan of the water too, you see, so it was fitting also that when the victorious Ilen U21 team popped into Minihane’s pub in Lisheen after winning the South West title, they bumped into former Ilen Rovers underage players and international rowing stars, Paul and Gary O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll.
‘It was nice for a change for them to congratulate us rather than the other way around,’ Leonard laughs – and he’s hopeful there’s more to come.
If that happens, no doubt he’ll be back in the headlines again.