BY KIERAN McCARTHY
DAVID Shannon felt compelled to return to his roots this season. He’s still working as a Garda in Enniscorthy, and has been since March 2016, and he’s still based in Wexford, but this year he’s back with O’Donovan Rossa footballers. He knows it’s a big year for the Skibbereen club and he wants to be part of it. Shannon, like the Rossas, means business.
‘With Skibbereen being demoted last year, the main aim is to get back up to the top division – that’s one of the main reasons why I’m back,’ Shannon told the Star Sport Podcast this week after his impressive return to Rossas red in their opening group game in the Cork Senior A football championship last Saturday.
The 29-year-old from Lissanuhig, just outside Skibbereen, is a different player to the one who last lined out for the Rossas in 2016. His time in Wexford saw him involved in the inter-county set-up and that’s had its benefits.
‘I’m a bit of a different shape, alright,’ he laughs, and he’s fitter, stronger and more mobile than before. Shannon’s concentrating on his fitness more than his lifestyle these days, he says, and it’s paying off. Against St Nick’s last Saturday he scored 0-6 from full forward and was the ideal target man. Again, he means business because he sees an opportunity for this Skibbereen team.
This season they’re operating in the new Senior A football championship, a tier below the top Premier grade. They want to get back in with the big boys. To get there, they need to win the Cork SAFC title – and they have a realistic chance this season.
As Shannon and his team-mates hopped into their cars and filed out of Brinny last Saturday evening after their 4-22 to 1-5 blitz of St Nick’s, they knew it was job done but also that far harder games lie ahead in the weeks and months to come. Still, they jumped the first hurdle. Targets were met and now they move on to Ballingeary on August 15th for their second group match.
This is a grade that Skibb can win. It’s a level, more so than Premier SFC right now, where they are competitive and where they can go on a run and build momentum. That wasn’t happening at senior level too often in recent years. In 2019 there was encouragement that they are on the right path. Wins against Carrigaline and Ballincollig were followed by an extra-time loss to Clonakilty.
In 2018, Nemo beat Skibb in Round 3. In 2017 Nemo beat Skibb in Round 1 and they lost all three SFC games that year. In 2016 they lost to Carbery in Round 1 and went into the losers’ rounds again. That followed on from 2015 when they reached the Cork SFC semi-final and played five games in that run – but that’s been the exception to the rule in recent years.
They’ve been a team in transition for several seasons but they’ve never been able to build up a head of steam and see what this side is capable of in high-pressure situations at the business end of a championship. They need to be cornered, have their backs to the wall and still win. They need to be two points down in a semi-final and hit back to win by one. To grow, they need those experiences as a team.
That’s why this season is different. They’re now in a grade where they are one of the top teams. They have a guaranteed three group games and they should advance to the knock-out stages, so there’s at least four matches, and, hopefully, more to come in the months ahead. Championship games are exactly what Martin Bohane’s team needs in their development.
There’s an excitement in the camp, David Shannon says, and there should be. The average age of the Skibb team against St Nick’s was 24. That’s a solid age profile. Shannon and goalkeeper Ryan Price, both 29 years old, were the oldest starting players. Then there is the returning Donal Óg Hodnett, Paudie Crowley, Daniel Hazel, Thomas Hegarty and Kevin Davis, and with Shannon and Price, all seven started against St Nick’s and all seven were involved in the club’s 2011 Cork U21A football winning team. That’s the experienced core of this group.
Then there is the more recent 2019 West Cork U21-winning football team. Eoin Fitzgerald, Sean Fitzgerald, Shane O’Driscoll, Rory Byrne, Elliot Connolly, Dylan Hourihane and Darren Daly were all involved in the Rossas team that won the Carbery crown last year. They all started against St Nick’s, too. The only player who started last Saturday’s match who wasn’t part of either U21 team (county winning in 2011 and Carbery champs in 2019) was midfielder Colm Fitzgerald. Rossas want a blend of both U21 teams and that needs time and games – and that’s why this season’s Cork SAFC is important as it offers the chance of time together, more games and the opportunity to go on a run. Potentially, this team can grow more this season than in the previous few years combined.
Take midfield, for example. The hope is that Rory Byrne and Colm Fitzgerald can develop a partnership here. Potentially, they are good foils for one another. Fitzgerald gets through a lot of the unseen work and can mind the house around the middle to allow Byrne, who had played wing forward in the past, get up and down the field. They need matches together.
Take Elliot Connolly, as another example. He played wing forward against St Nick’s and they couldn’t handle his natural pace and direct running. The speed merchant knitted defence and attack well and the more games he gets, the better he’ll become. That can be repeated all over the field. Shannon will get better with more games under his belt. Donal Óg Hodnett needs games to get back up to speed following his lengthy lay-off with a ruptured ACL. The potential is there, and we saw it against St Nick’s (granted, they were terrible). What Skibb have to target is the business end of this championship. They’ll take the positives and move on.
It was also encouraging for Skibb that they didn’t let up when the game was won. They scored 1-13 in the first half but scored more, 3-9, in the second half. They kept an intensity to their performance and didn't let this mismatch meader and drift. They kept going and going and going, and that’s what they need to do to get to where they feel they should be.
They’re at Senior A this season because this is their level right now. They want to get to the Premier grade but they need to improve to hit that target. The early signs tell us they will be a force this season, but there are a number of other teams who also have their sights set on this county title. It won’t be easy, but at least Skibb have the chance to move forward. And that’s one of the reasons why David Shannon is back. He’s here to help and play his part because he has seen the signs too.