BY KIERAN McCARTHY
DAN MacEoin is only 26 years old. For some reason, you’d expect him to be older. It feels like he has been around for a long time and that he should be late 20s, easy.
‘No, definitely 26,’ he says, after a brief moment of self-doubt. In fact, he’s not 27 until March 2020.
So far, there have been two main acts to Dan the Footballer. The Cork chapters in his early days saw him star for the county minors and U21s in the first half of the noughties, winning Munster titles, playing in All-Ireland finals – and this is where his reputation as a powerful forward was shaped. (He did get a run-out in the league with the seniors in 2016 under Peadar Healy, but it didn’t lead on to anything else.)
Then we have his Ilen Rovers’ career, the 17-year-old who kicked 1-11 in the 2010 county minor B final triumph against Naomh Abán, and 1-9 of that was from play. He was in the headlines from the start. Dan was the man, and nine years on, he still is.
‘I’m not sure were Ilen ever that dependent on me,’ he muses, playing down his influence.
The stats say different. While recent seasons have been lean for Rovers at county championship level, he’s been a constant throughout, punching in impressive scoring tallies and he’s still performing.
‘When I went back to the club full-time after Cork we weren’t going that well as such, we weren’t having a year like we are this year,’ he says ahead of Saturday’s Cork SFC quarter-final against Newcestown.
‘I had a good start to my career and hopefully it’s turning around now and it’s great to be involved in these type of games. We’ve had a tough couple of years at club level but it’s looking a lot brighter.
‘I am considered one of the older lads on the team but I’m still young and I should only be starting to come into my prime from now, so hopefully it’s upwards from here.’
This is Ilen’s first county senior quarter-final since 2008. It will be Dan’s first, too. If recent seasons were a struggle with regular exits from the championship (before this season their last first-round win was in 2013), this campaign has been anything but. There’s a buzz in the Ilen camp. Winning games does that. Ilen have made winning a habit this year. There was surprise victory over a fancied Carbery Rangers in Round 1 of the championship in April, a day where Dan kicked six points. There were 10 wins in 11 Division 3 league games, including the final victory against Douglas, as Ilen won promotion and silverware. And there was the scrappy 1-10 to 1-9 Round 3 victory against Fermoy at the end of August, a game where Ilen didn’t hit the high notes, but, importantly, still won.
‘Going down to Division 3 in the league turned out to be a blessing in disguise, we just started grinding out victories,’ Dan says.
‘Even the games where we weren’t playing well, we were figuring out ways to win. You saw that against Fermoy, winning becomes a habit and we’re winning even when we’re not at our best. Hopefully there’s more in us too.
‘We wouldn’t be overly happy with our performance against Fermoy but we found a way to win, that’s the difference between this year and previous seasons – now we’re winning games we would have lost in the past.’
Last season Ilen were involved in a SFC relegation scrap with Aghada that the West Cork men won, and the positivity off that performance stretched into the winter. The players gave a commitment for 2019. They’ve stuck to it. There’s better organisation, too.
‘We made a goal at the start of the year that we were going to put in a huge three months, we did that and we targeted the Ross game. The result there and the performance gave us the belief that we could mix it with these teams,’ Dan says.
‘It is an age thing, too. For years we have almost been treading water and we just didn’t have the strength in the panel, whereas this year we have 30 lads and there is a huge competition for places, which is a great sign. The quality of training has improved off the back of that.
‘Everyone is more interested when you are winning games rather than when you are struggling, it’s that momentum.’
Younger guys like Sean O’Donovan, Peter O’Driscoll and Donal Collins have stepped up, and the older guys – and Dan includes himself in this gang – are re-energised.
‘Some of more senior fellas on the panel, Paddy Minihane, Tim O’Regan, myself, Conor O’Driscoll, having the young fellas pushing us on, we’re probably finding that love for the game again,’ he says.
‘We had a couple of long years there when we were out of the championship early but we have a new lease of life this year and that can drive us on going forward.’
But to get past Newcestown on Saturday, and into a county semi-final, will take an almighty effort. Dan knows this. He went to watch Newcestown beat Mallow in the last round and was impressed with how they ground out that win. But Ilen will focus on making sure their own house is in order, and competition for places is driving up performance levels. After his injury problems Stephen Leonard came on as a sub against Fermoy while at the other end of the age scale, Kevin O’Sullivan made an impact off the bench too that day. More options, more competition. Just what Ilen needs, players chomping at the bit.
‘Kevin came back at the start of the summer and he made a huge impact when he came on the last day. He really settled us down,’ Dan
‘We all grew up idolising him when Rovers were making semi-finals and finals and he was on the Cork panel. When I graduated to the senior Ilen panel – that was the time where we took a step back because the strength wasn’t there – Kev was a huge influence in keeping it afloat and teaching all us young fellas the ropes.
‘To have him back this year is
huge, he is putting in a huge effort, he is in serious nick, he’s flying in training.’
O’Sullivan is also the reason that Dan didn’t have to buy new football boots for Saturday’s derby with Newcestown. Dan works as a teacher in Knocknaheeny and lives in Little Island, so it’s handy club training is in Ovens. Wednesday week ago, after training, Dan’s training bag with boots and gear was knocked out of his car boot, and sat on the road. It was O’Sullivan who rang Dan an hour later.
‘Dan, I have your boots.’
Ilen supporters will hope that they are his shooting boots, as Dan and Ilen look to build on the promise and potential that hints at better times in the seasons ahead.