BY TOM LYONS
‘We came to Timoleague today with two Mícheál McCarthy’s, and now we’re going home with three!’ – Liam Evans, St James GAA Club Secretary
IT isn’t every day you win your first Carbery junior A football title and when you’re a small rural club threatened with extinction, you certainly celebrate hard when you do win it.
Ninety-five long years after the South-West (Carbery) junior A football championship was first set up, St James, from the small Ardfield/Rathbarry parish on the Wild Atlantic Way, finally got their hands on that title after a thrilling final in Timoleague on Sunday.
Waiting to deny St James their dream were double-seekers, Ballinascarthy. Favourites to win, they had space on the shelf next to the Flyer NyhanCup for the Mick McCarthy Cup.
After a slow start, and using their physical advantage, the Mountain lads settled and had seven points on the board by half time, from five different players, but it was their defence that was really impressing, limiting Bal to only three points in that half. Bal supporters needed no reminding that the Saints’ defence hadn’t conceded a single goal in the championship and they looked hell bent on preserving that proud record.
But was four points a sufficient lead considering the breeze? Neutral observers in our vicinity were tipping Bal at half time to turn the tide in the second half.
It was backs-to-the-wall stuff for the winners for much of the second half but the Bal attack was running into a green and yellow wall in front of goal and they managed only two points in the third quarter, from their best player, Cillian Cullinane.
Gallant St James were finding it hard to bring the ball out of their own half and we wondered how long more they could hang on but we forgot that they had faced the very same situation against St Oliver Plunkett’s, Tadhg MacCárthaigh and Argideen Rangers earlier in the championship and had found a way to win each time, by a single point in each game.
As the last quarter dawned, St James could sense the Mick McCarthy Cup, sitting on the table in the corner of the pitch, getting ever nearer and when manager/coach/trainer and honourable Kerryman Alan O’Shea kicked three superb points from frees against the breeze, the title seemed to be heading for the Mountain.
However, you write off Bal at your peril this year and when they reduced the lead to two points in injury time, which stretched to six minutes, it was squeaky bum time for the Saints, as a famous soccer manager once said.
Time now for some heroic defending, with O’Shea watching helplessly from the sideline having received a black card, and St James weren’t short of heroes as Bal tried to repeat the heroics of the Kilmac game but found an immovable object this time in the shape of the Saints’ outstanding defence. In fact, the Reds failed to create a clear goal chance. When the final whistle blew there were new, first-time champions on the throne in West Cork.
Rarely have we seen such jubilation as the St James’s players celebrated and the supporters crowded onto the pitch to congratulate them. There were tears, hugs, back slappings, hand-shaking and dancing jigs of delights, all round before the cup could finally be presented to captain Joseph O’Sullivan, who gave a fine victory speech.
We met Ardfield women with prayer cards in their hands, no joking, and they were well crumpled in those closing minutes and we met veteran players like the McCarthy’s, Kevin O’Brien, Diarmuid O’Donovan, Paul O’Sullivan, and the Daddy of them all, with his little baby, Finbarr McCarthy, a mere 15 years old when he togged out for the 1997 junior B final.
Many were finding it hard to believe that they had finally won the junior A football, in the twilight of their long careers, having given tremendous service down the years without ever playing in a final. For them, this win was truly a dream come true.
Fr McCarthy, who came as a stand-in parish priest many years ago and never left, stood and took in the joyful scenes, promising to hold a thanks-giving Mass next weekend. From the old player of the 1940s sitting in his car on the hill, to the babes in arms being held for photographs, the whole parish seemed to be there. Man, woman and child and not a cow being milked as a result.
Little wonder that an hour after the final whistle sounded, with darkness descending, the supporters and the players still mingled on the pitch, reluctant to vacate the place where they had just created GAA history. But the bonfires were being lit on the Mountain, the celebrations were just beginning, and the night was young. One thing for certain, there was no work done in the parish of Ardfield/Rathbarry on Monday and the cows could manage themselves.
As club secretary, Liam Evans said, ‘We came to Timoleague today with two Mícheál McCarthys and now we’re going home with three!’