The 2019 West Cork Sports Team of the Year is St James’ junior footballers who won the Carbery JAFC title for the first time in the club’s history last season. KIERAN McCARTHY caught up with three of those heroes, the veterans Micheál McCarthy (Brittas) and Kevin O’Brien and the young-ish gun James O’Sullivan, to reflect on St James’ incredible year
STEP ONE: UP AND RUNNING
St James 0-7 St Oliver Plunkett’s 0-6
Carbery JAFC Round 1, April 13th, 2019
In years gone by, this is a game that St James would have lost, Micheál McCarthy admits. In terms of winning the Carbery junior A football championship, he also felt their chance had slipped away. He’s better placed than most to say that.
Micheál McCarthy (Brittas) has lined out with St James’ juniors since the early noughties and he turns 37 years old this August. He’s been there and done that. Enjoyed the highs, suffered through the lows and togged out season after season.
‘I thought the ship had sailed a few years back,’ Micheál admitted.
‘2018 did offer some hope, in terms of performances, but more so on the hurling side. We lost the hurling semi-final to Kilbree and we got beaten heavily by Kilmacabea in the football semi-final.’
Let’s step back into 2018 for a few moments. That campaign ended on a low note – a 1-19 to 2-4 battering against eventual champions Kilmacabea. Not an ideal result or performance to mull over during the winter months. That left a bad taste.
But there were positives.
‘That was the first year in a while that we put a run of games together and we were consistent in both codes. Going into 2019, that stood to us because we knew what the level was and the question was could we get up to that level,’ Micheál said.
Another of the experienced guard, Kevin O’Brien, agrees: 2018 was an important stepping stone. He points to the quarter-final against O’Donovan Rossa. They were dead and buried that day in Rosscarbery.
‘I was playing midfield, they threw me in full forward, and when that happens, it’s not a good sign, that's the last resort,’ he laughed.
‘But we scored 1-1 at the end, Frank Hayes got a goal in injury time and we could have won the drawn game. We came out for the replay and we negated their strengths really well and won after extra time. That was huge.
‘We were dead and buried against Skibb, but we came back and won the replay. That was something.’
Then came the deflating loss to Kilmacabea that was followed by that hurling semi-final defeat to Kilbree (1-15 to 2-11) – two bad defeats in different circumstances.
‘I never contemplated packing it in but you do think that it’s just not going to happen for you,’ Kevin (35) said, having played his first football championship game in 2002 and soldiered on since.
On to 2019 and that first-round against Plunkett’s in wet, windy and wretched Ballinascarthy. It was a battle won in the trenches by James’ defence, 0-7 to 0-6. All through the campaign the defence came up trumps.
‘We would have lost that game most years,’ Micheál said.
‘We came in at half time, three points up, our dressing-room was a small bit negative because we felt we should be further ahead but we weren’t. It wasn’t pretty but we dogged it out.’
The result helped their self-belief, just the boost they needed. This was a team that could beat the best sides in the division on a good day but then fail to back it up. They needed confidence and more belief – and this is where player/manager/coach Alan O’Shea excelled.
The Plunkett’s win got them up and running.
STEP TWO: BUILDING CONFIDENCE
St James 3-14 St Oliver Plunkett’s 0-8
Carbery JAFC Round 2, July 28th, 2019
A South Kerry man is central to this story. Alan O’Shea is from Waterville. He arrived in Ardfield eight years ago. Initially he still lined out with his home club, but over the years he threw his lot in with St James and took over as manager in 2018.
On the field, he finished 2019 as their top scoring forward, but his influence on the team is a crucial piece in this championship-winning jigsaw.
‘Alan has a way of man-managing people that is a lot different to what we would be used to,’ Kevin O’Brien said.
‘After we beat Plunkett’s for the second time, and we played well, fellas started to think that maybe Alan is right. He is so driven and intense, but when you see a performance like the Plunkett’s one, fellas started seeing the results and people bought into what Alan was creating.
‘We were really pumped in the dressing-room before that game because we knew we had to perform. We rarely beat Plunkett’s twice in a row – but we did.’
Half time here they led 1-10 to 0-4 and were purring. They finished 3-14 to 0-8 winners. Confidence was rising. O’Shea was getting the reaction he wanted. He drives standards. His player-management works, too.
‘There were a couple of league games I couldn’t make last year and that was no bother; there was never any pressure. It worked well coming into the summer of 2019,’ Kevin said.
It was all ticking along nicely, St James were into the quarter-finals but still under the radar. That was about to change, though.
STEP THREE: IT’S BECOMING REAL
St James 3-6 Tadhg MacCarthaigh 0-14
Carbery JAFC Round 3, August 11th, 2019
James O’Sullivan and his fiancée Sinead Maher flew back into Dublin Airport early on the Sunday morning of St James’ Round 3 clash with Caheragh.
Their six-week adventure in South America was over, but what an amazing trip. It took them to Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and then Miami and New York on the way home. Packed with memories, like their four-day trek to Machu Picchu high in the Andes Mountains in Peru, and stopping off on the Salt Flats in Bolivia.
On home soil again, now it was time for James’ next adventure.
Sinead’s dad collected them at the airport just after 8am, brought them back to the family home just outside Kilkenny city and fed them before they drove back to West Cork. The clash with Caheragh was at 7pm in Skibbereen so they had time on their side.
James grabbed his gear from home in Clon town and joined up with the rest of the team. He togged out.
‘We’re getting married this year so last year was the year to go,’ explained James, who’ll turn 30 this year yet he is considered as one of the younger lads. In the context of the team’s age profile, that’s understandable, with over two thirds of the starting side 30 or over.
‘I only missed one championship football game (Round 2 against Plunkett’s) when I was way, apart from hurling.’
He was in Cartagena in Colombia when St James beat Plunkett’s the second time, getting constant updates from home, peppering his father’s phone with calls in the first half. When St James’ hurlers were knocked out of the championship by Ballinascarthy on August 4th, he knew he’d be home for the football clash with Caheragh.
James was brought on inside the last ten minutes of a physical game. The Saints were clinging on to a lead they’d built up thanks to two early goals. Tadhg MacCarthaigh, beaten finalists the previous season, were coming strong. St James held out by a single point. This was a shock result.
The seeds were set before the ball was throw in. As St James were running back towards the dressing-rooms after their warm-up, they collided with the Caheragh team running out onto the pitch. They met at the narrow gate leading onto the field. Something had to give. But neither team wanted to take a step back.
‘You don’t want to concede ground and let the other through,’ Kevin O’Brien said.
‘There was no malice or anything.
‘One of our younger guys was at the head of our group and he didn’t cede any ground. There was a small bit of a kerfuffle, a bit of pushing and shoving, but it galvanised us going into the dressing-room. It helped us mentally get tuned in.’
St James were pumped. They scored two goals in the first three minutes and led to the end. They were back to a second successive football semi-final.
STEP FOUR: ALMOST THERE
St James 0-9 Argideen Rangers 0-8
Carbery JAFC semi-final, August 17th, 2019
This was a dangerous game. St James were fancied going into the semi-final. That’s an unusual position for this team, but that was out of their control in Clonakilty on this Saturday evening. What helped, maybe, is that there was a Cork SFC heavyweight clash between Carbery Rangers and Castlehaven on the same evening in Skibbereen that attracted the bulk of the attention. Still, St James were one game away from a first Carbery JAFC final.
‘We have played games before where we have beaten one of the bigger scalps and we always had a problem in backing it up,’ Micheál McCarthy said.
‘We were into a semi-final where we were expected to win, and that was dangerous. Our performance in the first half was very poor. Of all the games, I think that was the most satisfying result we had. It wasn't the prettiest of games but we dug it out.’
Again, it was tense. St James won by a single point. Kevin O’Brien has one standout memory.
‘We were one point down and the ball was sent in to our full-back line. Usually, if you can break it away, that’s good, but Eoin Feen won a massive ball, turned it over and we went up the pitch and got a score from it,’ he recalled.
‘If Feen’s man won the ball or if they got a free, they go two points up, but he won that ball.
‘All year our defence stood up and gave the forwards the platform.’
O’Brien’s right, St James’ backs were immense all year.
Goalkeeper Diarmuid O’Donovan didn’t concede a goal in nine championship matches (five in Carbery, four in the county). Michéal McCarthy (Brittas), used in the full-back line last season, was voted Players’ Player of the Year. Eoin Feen had a great year. That defence was the rock that St James build success on, including the greatest day of all.
STEP FIVE: THE PROMISED LAND
St James 0-11 Ballinascarthy 0-9
Carbery JAFC Final, September 22nd, 2019
There’s a tall floor lamp that stands beside the corner sofa in James O’Sullivan’s living room. It’s from IKEA. It was a joint purchase with his fiancée Sinead. It’s both stylish and practical, and it just so happens it beamed directly on James during this chat. He was under the spotlight. It’s not the first time he felt under it.
On the Tuesday night before the Carbery final, Alan O’Shea named the starting team. This was earlier than normal. Usually the team is named on a Friday night. But this wasn’t a standard game, this was the biggest game in St James’ history. Knowing the team early gave them extra time to focus.
There was some news. There was one change from the semi-final starting side. James O’Sullivan was coming in for Frank Hayes. Both would have known this ahead of that training session because Alan O’Shea would have called them beforehand, just so they wouldn’t be caught off guard. ‘Fitness wise I was grand, I had five weeks leading into the final, going hammer and tongs to get back on the team,’ said James, an Engineering and Tech Graphics teacher at Mount Saint Michael in Rosscarbery.
‘In my own head, I felt kinda bad that I had been away for a few weeks so there was a bit of guilt that I had been away and here I was starting the biggest game the club has had – but it all worked out for the best.’
Hayes came on early in the second half in Timoleague and kicked a crucial point as St James created history, capturing the Carbery JAFC crown for the first time.
That was a glorious day. For Kevin O’Brien and Michéal McCarthy, it was a long time coming. They were there in 2005 when St James won the county junior B hurling championship, but success was thin on the ground in the years since. The team grew old together. The window of opportunity was closing.
‘The longer it goes on without winning, the more frustrating it gets and if you’re being honest, the less likely it is to happen,’ Kevin said – and then they won the club’s first Carbery JAFC title.
At half time in the final, and St James leading Bal by 0-7 to 0-3, Micheál went up to Kevin and told him to ‘empty the tank, we might never get this chance again’. The message was passed on. The tanks were emptied. The cup was won.
The season didn’t end there. Into the county and wins against Cobh, Boherbue and St Michael’s set up a county JAFC final against a fancied Kilshannig, who won 0-22 to 0-11 in Páirc Uí Rinn, but the Carbery champs lost nothing in defeat.
‘To a certain point age is a number because if the mentality and energy are right within the group, I don’t see it as a problem,’ Kevin said.
‘I would say we were spot on in all our games and in the county final against Kilshannig I think we played almost the best half of football we have played in the first half, with the wind, and we were 0-11 to 0-7 down.’
No complaints from St James, the better team won.
Now attention has turned to the title defence. They were back training early last week. The appetite is still there.
‘There is an acute awareness now that it’s going to be twice as hard and that teams will be gunning for us, but that’s the challenge and we can’t wait,’ Kevin added.
First though, they’ll collect the 2019 West Cork Sports Star Team of the Year Award this Saturday night, a reminder of their best ever season, when the men from the Mountain scaled their Everest.