DRINAGH Rangers’ decision to give youth its fling is paying off.
Before a ball was kicked in their 2021/22 campaign Drinagh’s intent was to freshen up their junior squad by blooding the club’s young guns.
It meant that Premier Division expectations had to be tapered, according to captain Gearoid White (31). He has been a core member of the team for years. So too have Barry O’Driscoll (Hawthorn), Barry O’Driscoll (Toughbawn), JJ Collins, Tomás Connolly and Keith Jagoe. They are still central characters to this ongoing success story – but there was a need to give the next generation its chance to shine.
‘We have a lot of older lads on the team so this season was all about bringing younger lads on. Suddenly we have five or six U20s on our starting team,’ White explains.
‘We thought this year could be quite tricky so we were thinking we’d be mid-table, maybe top half in the league.
‘It took us a long time to get going in the league and we lost two of our first three games because we were concentrating on bringing the younger lads into the team. It took us a while to figure out who plays best where.’
Despite the slow start the Drinagh jigsaw soon fell into place. Those losses to Togher Celtic and Kilgoban Celtic were the only league matches that Declan Deasy and Don Hurley’s team lost this season. They went unbeaten for the rest of the league. The new kids on the block found their feet and became integral to the squad – goalkeeper Jack Payne-Murphy, Ciarán O’Regan, Robbie McQueen, Tom McQueen, Owen Tobin, Eoin Hurley, Sean Calnan, Jamie Hourihane and Liam McCarthy. One match stands out for Gearoid White.
‘We were at home to Spartak Mossgrove at the end of January and they absolutely bossed the game, but we still won 2-0. Robbie McQueen and Tom McQueen got the goals. That was the day that we put a marker down with our younger lads. We defended together, attacked together and I knew after that game that we have a good team here,’ White says. That win also saw Drinagh hit top spot in the Premier Division table for the first time this season.
The 2019/20 champions were firmly in the three-way title hunt, battling with Clonakilty Soccer Club and Dunmanway Town. As the season played out Drinagh topped the table, Dunmanway’s challenge stuttered, but Clonakilty had games in hand on the leaders. The title race looked certain to go down to the wire, especially after the two rivals drew 2-2 in late May. If Drinagh had won, they were league champions. But the draw meant Clon would win their first Premier Division title if they won their games in hand. Drinagh could only watch on, hoping for a favour.
‘After we drew with Clon, we thought we were done and dusted to be honest, and that Clon would run away with it,’ White admits.
‘They had to go away to Durrus, Dunmanway Town and Togher, which are three tough games, but this late in the season teams can find it hard to put out full-strength teams so we thought Clon would win those three games.’
There was a title twist. On May 29th, Clonakilty lost 2-1 away to Dunmanway Town – a result that handed Drinagh Rangers the Premier Division title. White received updates throughout the game from a Drinagh team-mate who went to the game, more in hope than expectation.
‘We thought our season would fizzle away but now we are league champions,’ White says, and it’s a prize that means a lot to this club and this group of players. It’s their third league title in four seasons. In the last nine Premier Division campaigns they’ve won five and were runners-up in three. That’s a remarkable level of consistency.
‘For us the league is the one we want to win. The league title is the reason you don’t go out on a Saturday night and why you get up and play every Sunday. It’s the one you put the most work into. We get the same 14 or 15 lads out every Sunday. It’s the hardest one to win. No game is easy,’ he says. The younger players now know what it takes to win the Premier Division title. That’s important, too. They got their hands on the cup after their Parkway Hotel/Maybury Coaches Cup semi-final home win against Togher Celtic last Thursday night.
‘My generation, and there are a few of us, has had great success, and now we have the likes of Tom McQueen, Robbie McQueen, Ciarán O’Regan and all the young fellas wanting what we have had. This season was about giving those lads the experience of adult football. We felt it would take time but they have shown how good and how mature they are, and they have stepped up so well,’ he says.
‘The U19s this year won the double too so they will want to step up to the junior team and that’s what we want. The older lads want the competition, we want fellas pushing us. If they are better than us and take our places, that’s good for the club.
‘It’s a credit to the underage system in Drinagh. If you go to the pitch on any night of the week you will struggle to get a carpark space because the place is packed, from U10s up. It’s all about bringing those underage players up through the ranks and for them to see the junior team having success. When they are 17, 18, you want them to want to be involved in that.’
It’s why, too, Drinagh’s experienced core of players is so important. They have been there and done that in the West Cork League. They know it inside out. They’re rarely flustered. Take White as an example. Earlier in the season he was switched from midfield to centre back – and took it in his stride.
‘We were stuck one Sunday morning, Barry O’Driscoll was missing so Don (Hurley) asked me to move to centre back alongside JJ Collins. To be honest, JJ doesn’t need anyone there because he’s so good. But that move created the midfield of Ciarán O’Regan and Tom McQueen, and that was the midfield that was needed and it made us better there,’ White explains.
‘I dropped back to centre back, and JJ and myself have been going well since January. I didn’t mind it; it gives me the chance to take a five-minute break now and again instead of running up and down the wing! JJ deals with all the physical stuff and high balls coming in and I look after the ground; we work to our strengths. If JJ goes up and wins the ball, I’ll mop up.’
The role of the joint managers, Declan Deasy and Don Hurley, must be acknowledged also. They are the driving forces behind Drinagh’s success.
‘The club wouldn’t be where it is without the two lads,’ White says.
‘Declan has been involved in all 14 Premier Division title wins with the club – four as a player and then ten as a manager. Don has been involved in all ten as a manager. That’s an incredible record. They bring the team together very well.’
And Drinagh are not finished yet. They are in the final of the Parkway Cup and still in the Premier Division Cup so they could potentially end the season with three trophies. White’s collection has also been boosted by a Munster junior B football medal won with Randal Óg in May; the Ballinacarriga man is back on the panel this year as Randals move up to junior A level. A first Carbery JAFC campaign awaits this summer for White and Randals, but first he wants to finish the soccer season in style.