The new kings on the throne can build on this success, says KIERAN McCARTHY
WINTER is coming and there’s a new king sitting on the throne.
Last Sunday night, Carbery Rangers marched into Rosscarbery village, triumphant conquerors returning home from their voyage, having won their biggest battle.
The darkness of the crisp night was lit up by blazing pitchforks topped with burning turf, and the whoops and hollers of supporters could be heard across the Causeway and beyond, as the new kings of Cork football enjoyed a heroes’ welcome.
In recent times, particularly in the 2012 and ’13 seasons, Rosscarbery was just a watching bystander as the Andy Scannell Cup headed west, to Castlehaven in those two years.
That must have been hard, like watching your schoolyard crush have their head turned by someone else.
Before this season, Ross, the most consistent team in this championship since the turn of the decade, had qualified for five SFC semi-finals in six years, losing four, and the one they won, in 2014, was followed by even more heartbreak, losing the county final to Ballincollig.
On these very pages before the semi-final against Avondhu, I called Carbery Rangers the bridesmaids of Cork football, and with good reason. They were the nearly men.
But unbowed and unbroken, they came back for more this season.
No matter the background story, no team can get their hands on silverware simply because ‘they deserve it’, life doesn’t work like that; you have to go and fight and work hard for what you want.
Eight-time camogie All-Star, and Barryroe great Jennifer O’Leary regularly says that ‘hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard’.
Ross worked their socks off last Sunday in Páirc Uí Rinn, they left every last ounce on the field and that effort laid the base for an excellent team performance that Ballincollig couldn’t match.
The prize: for the first time ever, the Andy Scannell Cup will winter in Rosscarbery and his new home will make him feel like a long-lost cousin. Look at the reception he got on Sunday night.
The triumphant Carbery Rangers team strode from the Celtic Ross Hotel, onto the bridge hill – their short journey lit by those blazing pitchforks – and into the heart of Ross where the stage was set for the team, who left this parish earlier that day as men, but returned now as heroes, county champions and officially the best football team in Cork.
A new order in Cork senior football has now been established, and that has a knock-on effect here in West Cork – and it’s certain to provoke a reaction.
The noughties, for the most part, saw Castlehaven as the dominant football force in the west, winning two Cork SFC titles as they topped the charts – but they have now been knocked off their perch by Carbery Rangers.
Only in the senior ranks ten years, Ross’s rise has been remarkable, from the local junior ranks in 2003 to county senior football champions in 2016, and they have left several established powers behind them.
Rangers’ triumph is a wake-up call to the rest in the west.
The big names of Castlehaven, O’Donovan Rossa and Clonakilty can only look on this week and offer their congratulations, but on another level they are envious and jealous – there would be something wrong if they weren’t.
They want what Ross now have, just like Ross wanted what the Haven had in 2012 and ’13, and this competition can only be good for West Cork football where bragging rights are a currency of their own.
But what Ross have done is also show the way forward, that the impossible can become possible, and by winning this year’s championship that offers encouragement to the rest of the teams in West Cork.
Go back to 1989 when Castlehaven won the county, it was the first time since ’71 that a West Cork team won the Cork SFC (the Carbery divisional team) and the first time since 1952 that a West Cork club (Clonakilty) topped the charts.
In the years after ’89, O’Donovan Rossa (’92), Castlehaven (’94), Bantry Blues (’95 and ’98) and Clonakilty (’96) all won the county senior football championship, a great time for West Cork football.
In those days while clubs around them were winning senior counties, Ross were a junior side, battling hard with Ilen Rovers and Tadhg MacCarthaigh to join the big boys, and they got there in the end, winning that first-ever county (junior) title on November 30th, 2003, beating Cill na Martra.
John Hayes, Seamus Hayes, Declan Hayes, Kevin MacMahon, Anthony Roche and Stephen Murray all played that day, and five of that six featured in Sunday’s win against Ballincollig.
For those men, from junior to senior has been incredible, and the emotion in John Hayes’ voice, and in his eyes, as we spoke last Sunday evening after the victory was worth more than a book full of quotes. It told me all I needed to know about how much this meant.
Such a class act on the field, and still one of this county’s best forwards, even though he’s a half yard slower these days, Hayes commented: ‘I have only one brother but some of these fellas are as close as brothers to me. We have been in places where we have had massive disappointments but we never turned on each other, we always went back and got it together.’
Each year Ross went back, and each year they tried to learn from the disappointment of the season before, and those building blocks all led to last Sunday when, lessons learned from leaving the lead slip in the 2014 final, their game management was excellent and they have matured as group, helped by Ronan McCarthy’s influence.
Last Sunday saw the bridesmaids ditch the bouquet and a huge monkey was lifted off their back, and they are the team to beat next year in Cork. This wasn’t a fluke, far from it, this was a work in progress for years, they became cuter and more experienced with each season, and now that the weight of all those defeats has been kicked to touch, Ross can win the next one or two counties, too.
They’ve finally arrived, and they’ve taken a sledgehammer to the brick wall that they kept hitting in recent years.
Now there’s a Munster club campaign to focus on, but it won’t be long before 2017 rolls around, and Ross put their title on the line, with one or two West Cork clubs certain to have their crosshairs aimed at toppling the champions.
But Ross – the team to beat – won’t give up their throne easily.