Sport

West Cork's Invincibles

June 21st, 2016 8:30 AM

By Southern Star Team

Champions! Riverside Athletic players celebrate winning the club's first-ever WCL Premier Division crown.

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THERE were celebrations on both sides of the Atlantic when Riverside Athletic got their hands on the club’s first-ever West Cork League Premier Division title.

It’s doubtful if Castletownkenneigh and Seacrets Bar in Ocean City, Maryland were ever paired together in the same sentence before – but there’s always a first time for everything, as Riverside’s history-making footballers showed this season.

While Riverside players revelled after the title-clinching 3-1 home win against Dunmanway Town, the celebrations also kicked off in Ocean City where three members of the team kicked every ball and jumped every challenge, thanks to Snapchat and regular text updates.

Player/manager Gearoid Harrington, midfielder Rory O’Connor and winger Niall Kelleher are spending the summer in the States, but they joined in the Riverside party after the team finished the season unbeaten to take home the league title. 

Here we look at a few reasons why Riverside Athletic’s very own Invincibles lasted the pace in this marathon season.

SOLID FOUNDATION: Let’s be frank, the Castletown team wasn’t prolific this season, scoring 25 goals in 16 league games – only Skibb, Bunratty and Leeside managed less in this division. Of the 27 teams across the three divisions (Premier, Division 1 and Division 2), only seven teams scored less than 25 league goals, but it was in defence where miserly Riverside laid the foundation for success.

The champions conceded only ten goals in their 16 league games, the best record of any team in the three leagues; runners-up and last year’s Premier champs Drinagh Rangers come closest with 16 conceded. Riverside also kept seven clean sheets.

Playing 4-4-2, Riverside captain Jason Collins believes that the consistency of selection in defence was key: ‘We didn’t concede much all season but we also weren’t scoring much at the other end to be able to afford to concede goals. Our back four didn’t change too much. Stephen Keohane was moved into centre back and Chris Daly was beside him – they were two big strong players, the base of the team.

‘Add in Kieran O’Driscoll, Billy O’Brien, Tiernan O’Driscoll, Rory Baggott and Kevin O’Donovan, and they were the lads in defence. We would mix and match, some days Tiernan might go in centre back with Stephen Keohane pushing on. 

‘Whether we had injuries or fellas weren’t around at the weekend we always made sure that we had a strong back four. Our defence was a priority.’

Goalkeeper Brian Corcoran was the rock that this defence was built on – he’s a superb shot-stopper and a commanding presence in the box.

And in the big games, Riverside’s defence was key. In the crunch games against Drinagh, they kept a clean sheet home and away.

‘We never looked like conceding in most games; that was vital. We had a few 1-0 wins but you need those to win a title,’ added manager Gearoid Harrington.

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HOME COMFORTS: Going undefeated in an entire league season is no mean feat and key to this was Riverside turning their home at Castletown into a fortress – seven wins from eight games highlights that. Mizen AFC was the only side to take points off the champions at home after a 1-1 draw, which itself was decisive, as Collins explains.

‘That game against Mizen, we were just after coming back from a hurling championship game for St Mary’s (a win against Araglen in the Cork JBHC round one) and we were under pressure with numbers. We felt that draw was a really good result considering the injuries we had and the lack of numbers.’

Three teams, including Riverside, finished the West Cork Leagues with unbeaten home records – Drinagh Rangers (Premier) and Bay Rovers (Division 1) didn’t lose a home game either – but Riverside took more home points than any other team (22).

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STOOD UP WHEN IT MATTERED: Every title-winning campaign has defining moments and Riverside’s is no different. Taking four points off defending champions Drinagh was key – Brian McCarthy’s winning goal in the 1-0 victory at home in mid-May was the only goal scored by any of the two teams in their two league clashes. That was crucial as by then it was a two-team title race.

‘Drinagh were always going to be the main challengers, they were just behind us and we knew that if we slipped up any bit then they would punish us. We drew five games this season and lost none, they lost two, and one of those was to us up in Castletown – if we didn’t win that game at home (1-0) it could have been a different story,’ Collins said.

Those results – and performances – against a top Drinagh team gave this squad belief that they were good enough to last the pace and win the league.

But there were many more key moments that showed Riverside could keep their nerve and that they had ‘the stuff’ of champions.

‘We drew away to Dunmanway Town at the start of May and we felt we left that behind us,’ Collins recalled, but then followed that aforementioned home draw with Mizen that was followed by a strong run of results.

‘We upped the ante after the Mizen draw and we beat Leeside, Drinagh and Dunmanway again which was a fair achievement,’ Harrington said.

‘Another key game was Bunratty away at the end of March when I was settling for a draw at half-time and we ended up winning 3-1.’

Collins also feels their 2-1 home away against Clonakilty AFC in March was key, with Michael O’Driscoll on target with the first goal before Chris Daly came up trumps with a late winner.

‘We battled on in every game, even if it was getting away from us. In other years we faded away when we needed to push on, but not this year,’ Collins said.

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IT’S A TEAM EFFORT: Gearoid Harrington, rightly, highlights the squad’s determination and consistency all season long, as well as Stephen Keohane’s input: ‘He got all of us fit and got our touch right training on Friday nights.’

But this was a real team effort, and as well as being consistent, getting the same team out most weeks was key, as Jason Collins explains.

‘We had our strongest squad this season, and I don’t think we started any game with our strongest possible 11 all season,’ he said.

‘This season has shown the importance of having a strong squad. You need a strong panel to last the distance. We’ve seen that with Drinagh in the past few years. Before we might struggle to make up the 11 players but this year we always had 14 or 15 at every game, so if a fella was injured we could rest him for the next game.

‘Brian Corcoran in goal was the only fella to play all games; everyone else missed a game or two, but we had a strong squad so we could mix and match.’

‘There were some lads on the bench for games that were very unlucky not to start so that will tells you our strength in depth,’ Harrington added.

Midfielder Brian McCarthy was a key presence, as were Daly brothers, centre back Chris (30), midfielder/forward Peter (26), while winger John ‘Bobs’ (23) also featured throughout the season. 

You also have to factor in that this Riverside team is made up entirely of St Mary’s GAA Club players so these lads know each other inside out. Kevin O’Donovan is soccer only at the moment, due to work commitments. 

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AN UPWARD CURVE: This Riverside team has battled its way to the top, and it’s worth noting that is their second season in the Premier Division since their promotion from Division 1 in the 2013/14 play-off final after they finished level with Clonakilty Town. Four-nil down at half time in that game, Riverside astonishingly won 5-4, earning promotion to the top tier of the WCL. 

Go back to the 2011/12 campaign, Riverside won promotion from Division 2, and there was also a Beamish Cup final win in 2013, and while it was a constant upward trajectory, this year’s league showing was a massive improvement on last year.

In 2014/15, Riverside finished third from bottom in the Premier, just avoiding relegation back to Division 1 after winning five and drawing three of the 16 games, scoring 25 goals and letting in 40 goals. So, how come the massive turnaround this year? Read on.

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With the weather not kind to the WCL season and all the postponed games, Riverside winning the Premier Division title and Crookstown, at last, capturing the Beamish Cup help the campaign finish on a high, as two new clubs have their hands on silverware, giving hope to the rest ahead of the 2015/16 season.

Meanwhile, the WCL Premier Division relegation play-off game between Mizen AFC and Leeside is on Sunday, June 26th, in Dunmanway, at 7pm.

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