By Michael Moynihan
THE littler All-Ireland, you could call it. The Cork county junior hurling title is widely regarded as one of the toughest GAA championships to win, and they know all about that around Ladysbridge and Ballymacoda in east Cork.
Local club Fr O’Neills have come close to the title twice in recent years. They were edged out by Argideen Rangers in the 1996 decider, while Ballinhassig pipped them in 2002. Another club would see heads drop. Not Fr O’Neills.
"You always live in hope," says club chairman Tom Wall. "We decided to build a new team. We lost six or seven players in the last couple of years - some retired, they’d held on as long as they could, but they had to go - while others have emigrated."
The rebuilding job fell to coach Eric O’Driscoll and selectors Robbie Dalton and Declan O’Regan. Dalton, the former Na Piarsaigh stalwart, had only moved to the area when he got "the knock on the door" and fell in to train the club’s footballers. He’s not the only arrival from outside the parish.
"You’ve Colin Buckley from the Glen here," says Dalton, "Dave Dorgan from Nemo. Getting involved is a great way to meet people."
As a city man Dalton can attest to the strength of Imokilly hurling.
"East Cork is a tough division. Cloyne, Cobh, Carrigtwohill - they all have plenty of hurlers, while Erins Own and Sars both have built-up areas with plenty of people settling there."
Wall recalls the tough passage through Imokilly.
"Our first game in East Cork was against Sarsfields, we were going well but we lost our top forward and the wheels came off a bit. After losing the game we picked out the best parts of the match from our point of view, and we felt there was light at the end of the tunnel."
That there was. Fr O’Neills faced near neighbours Castlemartyr in their next outing.
"That was a tough local derby," says Wall, "We were seven or eight down at half time but we got out of it. In the next round we had Midleton, and it went to a replay - I’d say they were two of the best junior hurling games I saw in the last few years, Ger Manley of Midleton got a goal the first day that was a contender for goal of the year.
"In the replay we had a comfortable win, our young lads’ fitness told."
Fr O’Neills had a relatively easy win over Dungourney in the semi-final, but they faced a strong Erins Own outfit in the divisional final.
"Erins Own could put out three or four teams, and they had a quality team out for the final, but we were cruising when we conceded two goals. John Flavin came on for us, he’d been out for most of the year and was only training for a month at that stage, but he went into full-forward and got a few outstanding points to win the game for us."
There was some celebrating, but nothing major, says Wall: "The big picture was always there, the selectors always see the big picture. We’d been there before and lost to Argideen and Ballinhassig."
That experience stood to them East Cork side in the county section. Against Freemount they rampaged to four second-half goals, while Shamrocks were dismissed in the semi-final. Fr O’Neills haven’t played a competitive game for a month, while Kilworth have played two hard games against Grenagh and one against Mayfield.
"Training is going well, but you can never tell anything from training," says Wall.
"I’ve seen Kilworth in the last few weeks and they’re a quality team. They battled with two men down to come out with a great draw against Grenagh and they won a great game in the replay. They have young Paudie Lynch, who seems to get better every game, they have Adrian Mannix, the top forward in Colman’s, while Willie Twomey is probably the Pat Mulcahy of Kilworth, a great player."
Fr O’Neills have worked away regardless.
"We’ve plugged away," says Dalton. "We had a challenge against Drom-Inch, we’ve played Ballincollig, and we’re pretty well tuned in. I don’t think Kilworth’s games will be a factor, I certainly hope not.
"We’ve been there, we’ve had heartbreak before. This is our third county final, and hopefully we’ll rectify this."
Fr O’Neills have trump cards of their own, in any case. They’ll be looking to Ger Holland, who’s played for Imokilly in hurling and football and for Cork at intermediate level. Dave Dorgan and the O’Neill brothers are other trump cards in the east Cork pack. Wall is keen to pay tribute to the backroom staff: "Eric O’Driscoll is a super coach, he’s coached with CIT and coached us to an U21 title. I rckon we’ll hear a lot more about him.
"Robbie Dalton knows the score, Declan O’Regan was a great corner-back for us for years, and together they’re a good team."
The sides clash in Pairc Uí Rinn tomorrow; would Wall have preferred a day out in Pairc Ui Chaoimh?
"A county final, you don’t get there too often," says Wall. "We’d play a county final if it was 12 o’clock at night on a boat out in Cork Harbour, or if it was Christmas Day on Fota Island. It doesn’t matter where and when, we’d play it."