THE champions are gone, the South West junior A football title is up for grabs and as the season gets underway there are no clear favourites in view.
Last season the sleeping giant that is Bandon football woke up and there was no stopping them on the way to both the South West and county titles.
So many of the teams are so evenly matched this season that it will inevitably take a rub of the green for some team to lift the Michael McCarthy Cup in September.
Players injured, players on travelling time-out, summer student visa work, holidays, loss of form, missed goals, poor refereeing decisions, there are so many factors that can lead to victory or defeat.
Lady Luck will decide which team she will hitch her wagon to and they will get the rub of the green when it really matters.
If we had some insight into what Lady Luck intended, then we could go very near naming the champions for this historic year of 2016, when special commemorative medals will be presented for the various championships and will be treasured possessions in the years to come.
For wh at it’s worth, these are our Top Ten for 2016.
The Kilmacs won’t enjoy being installed as favourites for the title as they like to work away in the background, taking teams by surprise at times with the quality of their football. This time, however, after their great campaign in 2015 when they reached their first-ever junior A final and ran hot favourites Bandon, very close, they are the team with the target painted on their backs.
2015 season: beat Argideen Rangers, Tadhg MacCarthaigh, Muintir Bháire and reigning champions St Mary’s to reach their first-ever junior A final. They lost the final by only five points to a very strong Bandon side. They finished the year by winning the league title.
Players available: Joe Collins has gone overseas for the year and will be a big loss, while Colin McCarthy and Colman O’Riordan will also be missing. A couple of the older players have yet to decide whether to carry on or not. The younger players should be a year older and a year wiser, but outstanding Cork minor Damien Gore is still too young for junior.
Players to watch: Martin Collins, Richie O’Sullivan, Clive Sweetnam, Ger O’Donovan, Niall Hayes and Karl O’Mahony.
Mentors: Same as 2015, Kevin O’Driscoll (manager and trainer), Denis O’Driscoll and Kevin McCarthy.
Round 1 opponents: St Colum’s.
Prediction: A tough opener against arch-rivals St Colum’s, but one way or another they should reach at least the semi-final and could possibly win their first title.
2. Tadhg MacCarthaigh
Any winning team needs a strong backbone of players and that is something the Caheragh side possesses in the three O’Driscoll brothers (Colm, Kevin and Brian). Inter-county commitments will make it difficult for the three Cork seniors but if they can find a way to give their club adequate commitment for 2016, then expect a big challenge from MacCarthaighs.
2015 season: It was a very disappointing one. They did beat Clonakilty in the first round but they fell next time out against Kilmacabea in the third round.
Players available: Should have all of last year’s players available but Dan McCarthy has cruciate trouble and Leon Burke is also out injured. The U17 rule is affecting them as they have three Cork U17 players but they can’t play junior. Good news is that Mark O’Driscoll is back after being out injured last season.
Players to watch: The three O’Driscolls (Colm, Kevin and Brian), Mark Barrett, Colm O’Sullivan and Mark O’Driscoll.
Mentors: Kieran O’Neill, James O’Donovan, who does most of the training, and Liam O’Donovan.
Round 1 opponents: St James.
Prediction: It all really boils down to the commitment possible from the O’Driscoll brothers. An early exit for Cork footballers would release them back to the club and result in a good championship run. Could reach the final.
3. St Colum’s
The Kealkil men can be counted on to, again, put their heart and soul into the campaign, as they always do and that makes them a danger to any would-be champions. Their first-round clash with Kilmacabea could be the match of the championship.
2015 season: A great first-round clash with Bandon was lost by only a point, the closest challenge Bandon got all year, and they went on to beat Ballinascarthy and Barryroe before surprisingly losing the quarter-final to Castlehaven’s junior string.
Players available: The unknown factor is the availability of the injured Alan O’Connor. A fit-again O’Connor would make a huge difference to their chances. Eoin O’Sullivan is in England but will travel back for the championship. All other players available.
Players to watch: Alan O’Connor, David O’Mahony, Denis McSweeney, Shane McSweeney, Sean O’Shea, Eddie O’Sullivan, Ben Murphy.
Mentors: Dan Hurley, Colm Cronin and Martin Cronin. Bantry man Terry O’Neill has been brought in to assist the Cronins in preparing the team and will be a big addition.
Round 1 opponents: Kilmacabea.
Prediction: Guaranteed to give their best and even a first-round defeat by Kilmacabea should still see them coming through the backdoor. Could reach the semi-final stage.
4. St Mary’s
The 2014 champions were disappointed with their performances last season but they still managed to reach the semi-final. At their best they have possibly the best team in the championship but events at the beginning of the year, when they lost their new manager, the late lamented John Corcoran, didn’t help preparations as they have failed to find a new manager since.
2015 season: They were surprisingly beaten by Castlehaven in the first round but recovered to beat Bantry and Ilen Rovers. In the quarter-final they accounted for Clann na nGael but lost the semi-final to Kilmac by two points.
Players available: They may be down half a dozen players from last season with the Milner twins off travelling and Stephen Cronin reported to be packing up football to concentrate on his wedding. A handful more expecting to go to the USA for the summer. On the plus side they will include outstanding young players like Billy O’Brien, Brian Everard and Cork minor, Dylan Scannell.
Players to watch: Daly brothers, Chris, Peter and, especially, John, Stephen Keohane, goalkeeper Brian Corcoran, Jason Collins, Billy O’Brien, Brian Everard and Dylan Scannell.
Mentors: Former star player Anto Quinn has taken control of the team on a temporary basis and will be assisted by Rick Shorten and Paddy Twomey.
Preliminary-round opponents: Ilen Rovers, with the losers playing Kilmeen in the first round.
Prediction: With a full side, they would start favourites for the title but minus half a dozen players, on top of their other troubles, won’t help their cause. Will still be strong enough to reach the quarter-final at least.
Stepping up to junior A after winning the county B title in flying fashion last season, they have a strong, young developing team and their players have a lot of experience at a higher level underage and also with college teams. They have, possibly, the best group of young players coming through the junior and if the ambition is right, may well be the dark horses of the championship
2015 season: They campaigned in junior B football last season and won the county title, their display in the final against Grange being one of the most complete ever seen in the grade. However, they later lost both the South West championship and league finals to Dohenys, as well as the Munster final.
Players available: All the players from the county junior B final in 2015 are available this season. Young players fighting for a place will be the Keohane brothers, Kevin and Brian, and the Scannell twins, Oige and Shane.
Players to watch: Ray Collins, Don McCarthy, John Clancy, Brian O’Donovan, Darren Santry, Damien O’Gorman and Darragh Coakley.
Mentors: Mícheál McCarthy is manager, with Don Keohane as assistant. Seamus Hayes, Carbery Rangers, is trainer.
Round 1 opponent: The loser of the Ilen Rovers v St Mary’s preliminary game.
Prediction: If the team has recovered its hunger after a long season in 2015, they will be a handful for any team in the competition. Lack of experience at this grade may be a problem but they have the youth, energy and talent to have a good run. A semi-final place is a strong possibility.
6. Gabriel Rangers
The unknown quantity most years, fully capable of winning the championship or being knocked out in the second round. If they get on a run, they will be hard to stop, with some of the best forwards in the division at their disposal.
2015 season: They beat Ballinascarthy in the first round but lost the quarter-final to eventual champions, Bandon.
Players available: Pat Nolan will line out for his possible last junior championship, an amazing record of 29 years on the team. Stephen O’Mahony will be a big addition this season but John Ward may possibly call it a day.
Players to watch: Mark Cronin, Eddie Goggin, Pat Nolan, Tony Sheehan, Liam Hegarty, Ger O’Callaghan, Pat Nolan, Chris Moynihan.
Mentors: Luke Nolan, Finbarr O’Brien and Brian O’Regan. Trainer is Mike O’Brien of Castlehaven.
Preliminary-round opponents: Dohenys, with the loser playing Diarmuid Ó Mathúna in the first round.
Prediction: Unpredictable but capable of matching the best on any good day. A quarter-final place.
It’s always hard to predict how a club’s second team will fare in the championship, as a lot depends on how many players are used by the first team, but the Haven showed last season that they have a lot of good, young talent coming through and could again get on a good run this season.
2015 season: Surprised champions St Mary’s in the first round, and then accounted for St James and St Colum’s to reach the semi-final, which they lost to eventual champions Bandon, after losing their top players to the senior team.
Players available: Again much will depend on senior, but they should have most of last year’s squad, minus Michael Hurley. Veteran Liam Collins will be a big addition to the side, as will the returned Timmy O’Donovan.
Players to watch: Daniel Hegarty, Conor Nolan, Timmy O’Donovan, Shane Hurley, Liam Collins and young players like Ronan Walsh, Ciarán O’Sullivan and Colin O’Driscoll.
Mentors: Batt Maguire (manager), Martin O’Mahony, Vivian O’Callaghan, Barry O’Neill and Fergus Shnahan, who trains the side.
Round 1 opponents: Ballinascarthy.
Prediction: Should have too much power for Bal in first round and much will depend on senior promotions but should again reach the quarter-final.
8. St James
They have been knocking on the door for some years now in both football and hurling, without making the big break-through. Making maximum use of tight numbers, the Ardfield club would dearly love a South West junior A title to go with the fine facilities they have provided for the parish.
2015 season: Had a fine win over Oliver Plunkett’s in the first round but lost in the third round to Castlehaven.
Players available: Just one retirement since last season with Finbarr McCarthy ending a long career in the green and gold but stepping straight in as manager. Kieran O’Donovan’s return from Kildare will be a boost. Young players coming through are scarce but Aaron Hayes could be an addition.
Players to watch: All the old reliables will be lining out, Kevin O’Brien, Micheál McCarthy, Eoin Deasy, James O’Sullivan, Mark Evans and Frank Hayes.
Mentors: new manager is Finbarr McCarthy with help from Conor Hegarty and Diarmuid Keohane.
Round 1 opponents: Tadhg MacCarthaigh.
Prediction: Have done very well in the first round for the past few years and should have a good battle with Tadhg MacCarthaigh. A quarter-final is a strong possibility.
9. St Oliver Plunkett’s
The Magpies from Ahiohill are almost an annual fixture in the last four but last season for the first time, the team looked as if wear and tear, from both codes, and anno domini is finally catching up with some players. However, their experience and fierce determination won’t disappear overnight.
2015 season: Failed to reach the knock-out stages of the championship for the first time in a long number of seasons as they lost the first round to rampant St James and were then beaten, surprisingly, in the losers’ group by Muintir Bháire.
Players available: No retirements to report, with all of last year’s available. Keith O’Driscoll is still in England but they may have former Clon player Brian O’Sullivan on board for the season. Sean O’Donovan is the rising young star.
Players to watch: Conor McCarthy, the O’Driscoll brothers, the Coffeys.
Mentors: Con McCarthy and Finbarr Walsh, with Clon man Denis Enright again coaching the side.
Round 1 opponents: Clann na nGael.
Prediction: Have a tough opener against unpredictable Clann na nGael, who will be without the dynamic Don O’Driscoll, and the Ahiohill men are unlikely to be caught for the second year in a row in the first round. Maybe a quarter-final place is their limit.
10. Diarmuid Ó Mathúna
They almost handed over their football talent to St Mary’s but are again going on their own, not surprising as they showed last season that they have fine potential in a promising young team. Indications so far are that they are concentrating on hurling this season but will still be a handful in football.
2015 season: Lost the first round to Ilen but scored a fine comeback win against Clonakilty in the second round. Gave Bandon a good game for 40 minutes in the third round.
Players available: All of last year’s team have reported for duty again and the young players to watch out for are Sean Buttimer, Matthew Draper, Gearóid O’Donovan.
Players to watch: Sean and Patrick Crowley, Ted Lordan, Kevin O’Donovan, Jack O’Callaghan, Barry Lordan, Padraig O’Driscoll and Aidan Collins.
Mentors: Jerry Nyhan, Christy O’Leary and Mark Hilliard, with Nyhan doing the coaching.
Round 1 opponents: Loser of the preliminary game between Dohenys and Gabriel Rangers.
Prediction: The potential is there if they concentrated on the big ball, following some fine underage results with Ahán Gaels, but indications are that hurling is again number one this season. They could still reach the quarter-final.