ON SUNDAY, March 28th, the day the clocks went forward, the Carbery senior football management team gathered its core group together at the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery. They were also forward-planning.
In the run-up to this meeting there had been discussions between the management, the Carbery Board and senior members of the 2021 squad to settle on an approach that could wake this sleeping giant of Cork football. Wake it to the extent that it would, at least, take one step forward. Small steps, just to move in the right direction.
Carbery didn’t win a game in their previous four county senior football championship campaigns (2018-21). The team was struggling to make an impression, on and off the pitch, within its own division.
Recruiting players to join a team that wasn’t winning and, potentially, would have just one game in a competition format that didn’t appeal to players is not an easy sell, even for manager Tim Buckley. He canvassed many footballers ahead of the 2021 campaign, but the response was mixed; from the ‘quite encouraging’ right down to the 40 whose response was ‘disappointing’. The attraction wasn’t there. Interest levels varied from club to club.
In the 2021 Cork Premier SFC Carbery lost 0-16 to 0-6 against Muskerry. Another low. Carbery started that game without 13 players who had made themselves available for selection. Welcome to life as a divisional manager. Inconsistency rules. In his end-of-season report last year Buckley didn’t hold back.
‘Carbery now finds itself at a crossroads,’ he wrote. ‘A repeat of the last two years will surely result in the stock of the Carbery senior football team being further diminished, as already our once proud footballing division is very far down many people’s list of priorities. It is incumbent on all stakeholders to halt this slide now before the position, if not so already, becomes untenable.’
The real danger was that the four-time Cork SFC winners would slip further into a chasm if Carbery didn’t take control, and fast. Buckley never stopped believing in the potential of this divisional set-up, but given recent results and lack of interest in many quarters, his voice was getting drowned out in the noise of a packed club GAA season.
At that meeting in March 2022, the decision was made to take a ‘little is lots’ approach and Carbery’s target was to win their first game. That alone would be progress given their starting point. Project Carbery had its first goal.
‘When you land goals in front of guys that are achievable, guys that want to win will grab it. That’s what has happened,’ captain Colm O’Driscoll noted.
A revamp to the championship format this year certainly helped. Thursday nights in June were set aside for weaker football divisions, Carbery included, to play off in a new section. Beara, Muskerry, Imokilly and Avondhu were there too. Games were guaranteed. One of these five teams would then emerge to take on UCC, MTU and Duhallow for a place in the quarter-finals of the Bon Secours Premier Senior Football Championship. This gave Carbery a calendar to plan around.
Phone calls were made to players right across the division. A lot answered. Still, some didn’t; and they missed the train this season. Players from Ballinascarthy, Bantry Blues, Barryroe, Gabriel Rangers, Goleen, Kilmacabea, Kilmeen, Randal Óg, St Colum’s, St James, St Mary’s and Tadhg MacCarthaigh joined forces in the purple and gold. Thirty-four players from different clubs wearing the same jersey. That in itself is a challenge, to break down club rivalries and foster a club mentality in a divisional set-up. It’s a slow process, but the bond is strengthening this year. A camaraderie. A togetherness. Winning games has helped.
‘There is something different this year,’ Kilmacabea’s Ruairi Hourihane said of his first training session at Ballinacarriga. ‘Everyone was shaking hands, everyone was having a bit of a joke and a laugh, and that’s been the difference.’
Colm O’Driscoll agrees.
‘There is a good mood in the camp because everyone there wants to be there and bring what they have to the party,’ he explained.
There were challenge games against Dohenys, Ballincollig and East Kerry club Rathmore in the lead-up to the opening game against Imokilly on June 9th. Randal Óg’s pitch in Ballinacarriga was base camp this year, following in the footsteps of Diarmuid Ó Mathunas in 2021. The pieces of the jigsaw were being added, including the addition of the highly-rated Rosscarbery man Haulie O’Sullivan as coach. The three Dineens, Jerry, John and Stephen, and Sean O’Donovan were selectors. Support from the Carbery Board was there, too. Now Carbery footballers needed results. And they came. Carbery beat Imokilly 2-18 to 1-10.
‘This win definitely gets the train moving at last,’ Tim Buckley quipped after. Since then, it’s built up speed and momentum. They beat Beara and Avondhu to emerge from the unseeded section of divisional, but the fragility of divisional teams also came under the spotlight in June when Muskerry pulled out of their tie with Imokilly because they couldn’t field a team. Muskerry GAA chairman John Feeney commented: ‘A lot of clubs don’t see any benefit in Muskerry teams playing’. The outlook is healthier in Carbery right now, helped by winning games, but what happened to Muskerry footballers is a warning to be heeded. But for Carbery, success breeds success. They went on to beat UCC, a bogey team for them in recent seasons, and then the divisional football standard bearers Duhallow in the divisional/colleges final at Páirc Uí Rinn. Carbery won the Tadhg Crowley Cup and a place in the quarter-finals of the Cork Premier SFC. From no wins in four years, now it’s five on the bounce, a cup to add to the trophy cabinet, and they’re in with the elite again. Nemo. The Barrs. The big boys.
This is where Carbery wants to be season after season, and they’ve now proved this group of players is good enough to negotiate through their own side of the draw first. Hard work and commitment has put Carbery football back on the map. But it will also raise expectations for next season and the future. So it should too. Duhallow have set the bar for divisional sides in recent seasons, and that’s a mantle that Carbery should target: be the best divisional side year after year.
Duhallow have been to three county senior finals in the last ten years, including two in the last four seasons (2018 and ’19) and a semi-final in 2020. The Duhallow division consistently makes it work. Carbery needs to follow suit and strive for the same consistency. That’s why this year is important – it’s setting the standard for 2023 and beyond for this group of players. They’ve shown there are quality footballers in Carbery. The young guns like Gabriel Rangers’ Paddy and Keith O’Driscoll, Randal Óg’s Sean Daly and St Mary’s Olan Corcoran. The top performers in the Carbery JAFC like Sean Ryan (Ballinascarthy), Aaron Hayes (St James) and Dylan Scannell, Brian Everard and Rory O’Connor (St Mary’s). The former Cork footballers, like the O’Driscoll brothers (Colm, Kevin and Brian) from Tadhg MacCarthaigh and Bantry Blues’ Ruairi Deane.
There is a core group that has been together for a number of seasons. They are driving standards. They soldiered alongside Carbery giants of the past, like Graham Canty, Alan O’Connor and Owen Sexton, and they know the importance of a Carbery team motoring well. Right now, it’s a good time to be a Carbery footballer again. The journey isn't over yet with a county quarter-final moving into the view, but regardless of the result there, Carbery needs to build on the momentum it’s created this season. The ‘little is lots’ approach has worked this year. The players are enjoying it.And it’s not over yet.
‘Thanks to this group of players, playing football for Carbery is becoming an attractive proposition again,’ coach Haulie O’Sullivan noted. It’s already been a successful season, but the goalposts have now moved, and the challenge will be to find that consistency that has been missing.