BY far the best junior A football team in Carbery last year, Kilmacabea looked to have the football world at their feet after beating Carbery Rangers in the final in Ardfield in October.
It saw them crowned Carbery champions for the third time in four years.
They were gearing up for a county junior A title assault until the playing season was shut down because of Covid.
The Kilmacs now have time on their hands, unwanted as it may be, to reflect properly on their present status in junior football in the county and how close they are to winning promotion to the intermediate grade for the first time in their long and chequered history.
It hasn’t been all roses along the way since the club was founded in 1887 and won the first West Cork championship in 1888. The bad times far outweighed the good days during the past 133 years.
Current junior A manager Kevin O’Driscoll is the mastermind and driving force behind the club’s present premier position in junior A football and he gives a good insight into the good times and bad times the club endured over the past 30 years.
‘It’s fair to say that Kilmacabea had something of a reputation for failing to build on the promise it sometimes showed on the pitch,’ O’Driscoll admitted.
‘For instance, having won the county B title in 1994, we were expected to drive on in junior A but it never happened. We lost too many good players to migration and emigration and the momentum just died away.
‘Then, in 2000 eight players who should have been driving Kilmacabea football at that time sat down together for Christmas dinner in Sydney. We had good players, like the Harringtons, Paul and Ciarán, scattered all over Ireland and they fell away. Those players had worn Corn Uí Mhuirí with St Fachtna’s in Skibbereen and were really talented but they just dropped out.
‘With the underage talent we were producing and our long history, nobody would believe that we had never won the South West junior A title, until this present bunch came along.’
It was also suggested that while Kilmacabea often produced outstanding footballing teams, that there was a soft core to their game and that they could be physically bullied on the pitch.
So, the battle to win their first junior A title was not only a physical and footballing challenge, it was also a psychological one. How did the club manage to overcome that challenge in recent seasons?
‘The secret of our present success is that this bunch of players began to develop together at underage level,’ O’Driscoll explained.
‘In 2009 they won the club’s first-ever underage county title at U14C and the following year they won the U14B. Later, they campaigned in U16A and minor A, a big step-up for us as a club. In 2014 they lost by a single point to Castlehaven in minor and the Haven went on to win the county. We also had a few minors like Niall Hayes, Richie O’Sullivan and Joe Collins playing with Cork minors, so the secret was that we started winning from a young age, the players were used to it and at a higher grade.’
The psychological barrier of winning the junior A title was still there, but soon they started beating the most established local football powers as well as build a strong panel capable of challenging.
‘We won the U21B title in 2013 and reached the quarter-final of the junior A with six of those U21s on board. And for once, we managed to hang on to those players and to build around them,’ O’Driscoll said.
‘We began to beat top junior A teams like Bandon, Tadhg MacCarthaigh and St Colum’s in the league and that gave the players the confidence to do the same in the championship.
‘Of course, you also need a bit of luck along the way and things began to fall in our favour. In 2015 we beat a very good St Mary’s to reach our first-ever junior A final and even though a superb Bandon team that went on to win the county, beat us in the final, we knew we were making progress.
‘In 2016, with a number of players out through injury, we lost to Gabriel Rangers in the semi-final and they also went on to win the county and the Munster titles. We knew for certain then we were good enough to win the junior A.
‘In 2017 we won the U21 again and then came the big break through when we beat Kilbrittain in the junior A final to win our first title. It was all down to winning games all the way up from U12.’
While the Carbery JAFC title was retained in 2018, it wasn’t all sweetness and roses during the past four years for the club that was so used to heartbreak down the years.
‘In our first year playing in the county junior championship in 2017 we were unlucky to lose to Erin’s Own in a replayed semi-final but that was more experience gathered for the players,’ O’Driscoll said.
‘Then in 2018 we reached the county final, against Dromtarriffe, and seemed to have the game for the winning when we led by five points in the second half, but Dromtarriffe put in a storming finish to pip us by a point. That was, undoubtedly, the worst day of my football life. It was a cold miserable night and I was trying to keep the kids warm as well as watching our lead disappearing. A terrible night I’ll never forget.
‘I stepped down as manager after that for a number of reasons and in 2019 the team was still suffering the after-effects of that county final defeat and we were beaten by Ballinascarthy in the semi-final.’
Last season saw O’Driscoll back in charge again and special planning had to be undertaken to get the team ready to make an attempt to regain the Carbery JAFC title. That they succeeded in some style could be credited to the management team led by O’Driscoll, the highlight being the titanic semi-final struggle with Tadhg MacCarthaigh in horrible conditions in Dunmanway, the night the team proved they could win without the dynamic Damien Gore getting on the scoreboard.
‘Like I said at the start, Kilmacabea often lost good teams because players emigrated but now the opposite is the case as we have welcomed back players like Donncha McCarthy, Daniel O’Donovan and Ruairí Hourihane,’ explained O’Driscoll.
‘They have proved huge to this squad of players. Unfortunately, the immediate future is uncertain as we have no guarantee when the county championship will be played off. We were told February, into March, but that is now looking highly unlikely because of Covid and the inter-county season in 2021.
‘It won’t be easy to keep the players going without a definite date but we do know this team won’t be satisfied until they have won the county and taken the club into intermediate for the first time ever.’
It‘s no coincidence either that O’Driscoll has been at the heart of so much of Kilmacabea’s recent success – he is the common denominator. At the club AGM for 2008 he threw his lot in with the U12s.
‘They just happened to be the lads at junior level now like Niall Hayes and Richie O’Sullivan. We were beaten in the final by a point by Newcestown but then we won that county U14 title in 2009 and we have never looked back since,’ said O’Driscoll, and he’s not finished yet.