WHEN Diarmuid O’Donovan collected his first-ever South West junior A football title with St James last September, he had been standing between the posts for the Mountain side for 17 long seasons.
While goalkeepers often have a longer shelf life than outfield players, it is still a tremendous record of loyal service to a team that had toiled in vain since 2006 to reach their first junior A final.
Everybody now knows all about the miracle year that St James had on the football pitches this season, winning the Carbery JAFC title for the first time and then reaching the Cork JAFC fina, but what about those 14 years when many of the same group of players struggled on, year after unsuccessful year, with little to show for their dedication and loyalty.
‘I started my junior career with St James in 2002,’ O’Donovan said.
‘There was a group of us started about the same time, lads like Paul O’Sullivan, Mícheál McCarthy (Dunnycove), Shane O’Driscoll, Mark O’Brien, Kevin O’Brien, Eoin Deasy, my brother Kieran, Ian Evans, many of whom were involved in this year’s junior team.
‘It was always 12 or 13 a-side at underage, we never had enough for 15. Many of us would have started playing junior at 16 or 17.
‘My first junior game was against Plunkett’s in Clon in 2002, I was brought in as a sub goalkeeper and then started the second round but injured my foot. I started with the junior hurlers at the same time.’
Even though he is the man between the posts now, O’Donovan actually played most of his underage career outfield, especially in hurling.
‘My father was a goalkeeper in football so when I was nine, I was playing in goal for the U12s, then I moved outfield,’ the St James’ shot-stopper said.
‘I played my first game in goal for the hurling, at U21 when I was 15. And I’ve been there since in hurling.
‘In football, I played outfield at minor level and then moved into goal at U21 and junior. Our first successful year at junior level was in 2005 at junior B level. Back then the junior B was very competitive and you had the likes of Kilmeen, Clann na nGael, Randals involved. They were all tough games and we ended up winning the South West double.
‘We went on to win the county hurling title. We were beaten in the county football semi-final but were allowed to upgrade to junior A the following year and have been there since. We actually won the Munster junior B hurling title in Killeady, I think it was the first time it was ever played.
‘We lost the All-Ireland final but two weeks later we played our first ever junior A game, against Clonakilty.’
O’Donovan was only 20 years old at the time and thought that St James were going to win South West titles every year after that, but it never materialised.
‘It wasn’t due to lack of numbers, we had the same core group all the time, but we were unlucky with the draw on a number of occasions and we always seemed to have lads going away for the summer on J1s,’ he explained.
‘We were all in our early 20s from 2006 to 2010 and there was always somebody heading away. I went away myself for a while, and later went for two years teaching abroad.
‘But we always seemed to come up against a good Tadhg MacCárthaigh side or some side like that. There was definitely a big gap between the top junior teams and teams like ourselves. Sometimes we came up against Clon or Castlehaven junior sides and they’d be very strong in the early rounds of the championship. Colum’s were very strong, with Alan O’Connor in his prime.
‘Maybe we thought at times that we were better than we were. We often got hyped up for championship games and then flopped on the day.’
In 2018, St James lost both Carbery junior A football and hurling semi-finals, and the loss to eventual football champions Kilmacabea left a lot of doubt in St James’ minds.
‘We thought we were miles off them and coming off the pitch that day I honestly believed we were never going to bridge that gap,’ O’Donovan said.
2019 was a new year, though. They got up and running in January with Colin Murphy from Clonakilty giving them a six-week physical training programme. Then Waterville import Alan O’Shea took the hot seat.
‘Fair play to Alan, he really put the belief into us, as coach and manager,’ O’Donovan said.
‘He came in as trainer in 2018 but was still playing football with his own club in Waterville as his brother was training them. He had played with us a few years ago and this year he approached a few of the older players and asked them if anybody would object to him playing for us again as well as training the side. Nobody objected. He was genuinely worried about what people might say about the trainer and manager playing as well.
‘There was no great influx of young lads into the panel this season. Conor Hayes is the youngest and he has great experience from playing Corn Uí Mhuirí with Clon Community College. The captain, Joseph O’Sullivan, is just 21 and Aaron Hayes is a bit older than him. We have a five-year gap then to the next players, so we have nobody in their mid-20s on the panel. Of the actual team that lined out in the South West final, 11 were over 30. Mícheál McCarthy (Brittas) would be the oldest at 36. There’s a big group then between 31 and 34.
‘Being older and wiser now means we never get too excited about any game.’
The miracle year of 2019 as the junior football team captured their first-ever South West junior A football title after beating Ballinascarthy in the final, reached the county decider against Kilshannig and added the Division 1 hurling title in the last game of a long season, will never be forgotten on the Mountain but O’Donovan will always have a special reason for remembering the year.
During the nine games from the first round against St Oliver Plunkett’s to the county final against Kilshannig, he kept a clean sheet between the posts, not a single goal conceded.
None of the experts could remember it ever happening before in the history of the junior football championship. O’Donovan has earned immortality but credits it all to his outstanding defence.
‘When I was a young goalkeeper I used often shout at the backs, “no goal, no goal,” but I never do that now,’ he says.
‘I’ve been playing behind the same lads for years and know them enough not to have to shout that at them. I can honestly say I didn’t get a real shot to save in the South West final, the defence was outstanding.
‘But I must confess in the county final when the game was lost in the closing ten minutes, it did enter my head, no goal.
“And the backs later told me they were thinking the very same thing, to keep our record intact.
‘We were lucky on a few occasions that day but it felt good to make a few decent saves as well. We were disappointed to have lost the final but recovered quickly because we knew we had been beaten by a better team. There was great satisfaction afterwards not to have conceded a goal, especially the following few days when the supporters kept on about it, and the lads in school as well. It’s a nice memory to have going forward.’
And O’Donovan, a legend in his own lifetime, has no notion of retiring just yet.