Croke Park is tomorrow’s destination for the Charleville hurlers, a straight line northeast. The journey to this point wasn’t quite as direct.
The tackle bags and the acting roles are only part of it.
As with all clubs, there’s no substitute for hard work, and the Cork Premier Intermediate title last season was the culmination of years of labour.
“If you don’t put in that work at underage in a club you’re not going to reap anything later on,” says Charleville selector Tony McAuliffe.
“There are about ten U21s on the team and panel, lads around the same age as Darragh Fitzgibbon who’ve come through together.
“They’ve been contesting finals all the way up - three years ago they were in the Minor Premier 2 final and since then we’ve been in Premier 1 hurling without being out of our depth, put it that way.
“If you don’t put in that work to bring lads through, though, you won’t get those results.”
And for a long time they didn’t. When you roll along the main Cork-Limerick road and go through Charleville its size alone often begs the question: were they underachieving?
Ben O’Connor, another selector, nods.
“If you go back over 20 years they’ve underachieved, and the Charleville lads themselves have no problem saying that.
“I remember the first of the three U21s we won with Newtownshandrum in 1998, we beat Charleville in the North Cork final and we were lucky to get past them the same day. They missed a few frees and if they’d scored them that day they could have gotten on a roll and driven on.
“They were years playing junior hurling, and I’m not putting that down as a grade, but Charleville probably felt they were better than that, and they probably were too. The likes of John Moloney, who’s a selector with the intermediate team now, got involved and he told me the other night it’s his 17th year involved. They put in the work at underage level, but not only have they done that work, they’re holding onto those players as well. You only have to look at the intermediate team and the U21s on the panel, there must be at least ten, which shows you they’re keeping them. That’s a big advantage, that these guys are totally focused.”
McAuliffe acknowledges the club jersey was being seen in junior hurling for a long time but points out the quality in that grade 20 years ago in Cork: “Since 2011 we’ve really driven on, before that we’d been stuck in junior hurling, but if you go back to the early 2000s there were some very good teams in junior hurling: the likes of Ballinhassig, Fermoy, Kilworth - they were all junior clubs then. The landscape was very different then.
“Winning the junior championship in 2011 was huge, and the intermediate in 2014 - we were on an upward curve, certainly.”
That junior title in 2011 led eventually to an All-Ireland junior hurling final defeat against St Patrick’s Ballyragget; another trip to Croke Park.
This All-Ireland final helps the graph to continue heading skyward.
“It’s a great boost to the town, not just the club,” says club officer Christy Dennehy.
“The funny thing is that there were very low expectations really about last season, because we were well beaten by Kanturk the previous year.
“Now we had a very young team out against Kanturk and they’re not much older now - we probably have nine U21s on the starting 15.
That’s a great sign for the underage section of the club, and the U16s got to the county final earlier in the year and only lost after a replay.
“So we’d be hoping to get one or two from that team down the line as well. That’s all you need from every team, one or two, to keep it going.” There’s colour in the town ahead of the game but Ben O’Connor says nobody’s losing the run of themselves ahead of the All-Ireland final.
“I was talking to John Moloney and Tony McAuliffe the other night at training and asked what things were like. John said he hadn’t really been bothered by people and Tony was the same, and I was saying ‘lads, if ye’re not being bothered by people . . . ’
“Now, that was early in the week so it’ll be building up. It’s fairly calm. There’s a fundraiser going on at the moment, Charleville Goes To Hollywood, and that’s all they’re talking about. It’s been a great distraction.”
Charleville Goes To Hollywood?
“A new committee was set up recently for fundraising,” explains McAuliffe. “We’re doing Hollywood Comes To Charleville on March 22, and the committee drove that on.
“In fairness, the players have all bought into it and they’ll be making their acting debut then. It was a very positive distraction for us as management because at training they’re talking about their roles and their accents and their costumes rather than the game.”
So there’s the secret: cast your full-back in a remake of Titanic.
Charleville have their own star in Darragh Fitzgibbon, of course, Cork senior midfielder and All-Star.
“It’s brilliant for any club to have one of the top hurlers in the country,” says McAuliffe.
“Darragh is certainly in that bracket. Every young lad from seven or eight years of age up is going around with a top with Darragh’s name or number on it, which is great.
“And he’s a fantastic club man - anything to do with fundraising or anything like that with Charleville he’s involved, he’s a fantastic ambassador for the club.” Fitzgibbon picked up a knee injury in the semi-final win over Graigue-Ballycallan, but O’Connor is hoping he’ll be right for Croke Park: “He’s been with Declan O’Sullivan (physiotherapist) above in Cork - we told Deccie to do whatever it took to get him right, so they’re working hard.” In his own time of course O’Connor won it all with Cork, and picked up a club All-Ireland with Newtownshandrum. Is his experience much help to those Charleville youngsters?
“I don’t know is it much of a help, to be honest. As I told the lads, ‘I won one and I lost one, and the experience is that winning is good and losing is bad.’ There’s no point in sending them out thinking ‘oh, he said this or he said that’.
“With a lot of young fellas it goes over their heads. They don’t take any notice.
“Before the semi-final we were without a championship game since the middle of November, whereas before that we had been having matches regularly, we were a lot sharper.
“We had a couple of challenge matches, but you can think you’re going better than you actually are in those because there’s no pressure on lads.
“Then you mention the championship and fellas think they have to do something different . . . The last time we got over the line, which was all we wanted. I told them all along that semi-finals were for winning, and we won.
“We’ve had three good weeks of training with no disruption bar Darragh being injured.”
They’ve also enjoyed plenty of local support. O’Connor is at pains to pay tribute to those who’ve helped the Charleville hurlers when they were stuck.
“The soccer club were very good to us, when the cold snap came a couple of weeks ago they left us in to their all-weather field, which made a huge difference in terms of the training we could do.
“Last year the rugby club helped us out with tackle bags for training another night when we wanted to do something different. So everyone’s rowed in and helped us out, and we really appreciate their support.” And tomorrow? Oranmore-Maree of Galway were too strong for St. Gall’s of Antrim in the other semi-final and will be formidable opponents.
“I think if we can just improve a small bit on the last day,” says O’Connor, “Particularly with the easy frees and shooting — the last day we had only four wides, in fairness, and we’ve been hitting a lot more than that all year.
“If we can get more shots on target we have a right chance, but we’ll have to watch the frees. Niall Burke (Oranmore-Maree) hit a load of points in the Connacht final and the All-Ireland semi-final so we have to be aware of that.”
Win, lose or draw Charleville plan on making the most of their success.
Tony McAuliffe acknowledges the commitment of the hurlers on the field and the supporters on the terraces alike.
“Every young lad strives to play at the very top level of his sport, whatever sport that is, and hurling is number one at the moment — we have a share of lads who’ve committed to hurling and who are getting their just rewards.
“The support has been terrific and everyone’s looking forward to tomorrow and Croke Park. They’re driving, getting the train, we have people coming from the States and Dubai . . . look, when it’s your club involved in Croke Park in an All-Ireland final you’d walk to the game.
“We’re fortunate in that it’s our second time there, having been there in 2012.
“My own young lad is nine, so it’ll be his second visit to Croke Park to see Charleville in an All-Ireland final — and this time he’ll be old enough to appreciate it.”