In sport, they say, fairytales don’t happen but Dublin’s newly-crowned All-Ireland Senior Softball Singles champion Eoin Kennedy might disagree.
In the last-ever singles match to be played at the iconic Irish Handball Centre in Croke Park, Kennedy (40) rolled back the years to see off five-in-a-row-seeking Robbie McCarthy in a 21-20, 21-18 thriller which had the capacity crowd on their feet.
Ten-time winner Kennedy is synonymous with the venue, soon to be demolished, winning his first title there 17 years ago, a night he referenced after his latest success.
“Nothing will ever beat the first one. I had trained for years and dreamed of winning and handball was such a massive part of my life at that age. Handball still is a very significant part of my life but I have a lot more going on with family and work and so on,
“I really, really enjoyed this, to be in a tussle and come out the right side. In the last few years it hadn’t gone my way but it being the last night in Croke Park, with so many friends and family there, it was special.”
Ahead 12-4 in game one, Kennedy found himself trailing 17-16 before clinching that crucial set. He held off an aggressive McCarthy for a come-from-behind win in the second, out-shooting the shooter on the home stretch.
The win crowns an amazing turnaround in fortunes for the Dubliner.
Two months ago, in Wexford, Kennedy had been well beaten by Martin Mulkerrins in the semi-final of the Irish Nationals, a warm-up tournament for the All-Irelands but a huge event in its own right.
The loss seemed to confirm that time had caught up with Kennedy and when he ran into the Galway man again in the All-Ireland semi-final and fell 12-4 down in the first game, that feeling was strengthened.
But Kennedy is renowned for his grit. He dug deep and eked out the win.
Afterwards, he stated how “desperate” he was to return to the final in the last year of the centre which he had made his own for so long.
Kennedy’s father and grandfather, both from Boyle in Co Roscommon, were champion players and he took up the game as a kid when a court was opened in the St Brigid’s club in Blanchardstown in the late 1980s.
But a couple of miles down the road in Croke Park, on the night before the senior football and hurling finals, was always where it was at.
The youngster was there for all the big nights, the Artane Boys’ Band whipping the crowd into a frenzy before, in a long-standing tradition, the president of Ireland would greet the players. In 2002, the place was jammed as he ended the reign of the great Walsh. After being caught the following year, he went on to win seven in a row, ruling the famous alley like a personal fiefdom.
But McCarthy was coming and in 2011, he took the title for the first time. When he sealed a hat-trick, it looked like Kennedy was finished but he came roaring back one more time in 2014.
In the meantime, due to an ongoing dispute, the finals had been moved out of their spiritual home. McCarthy, nine years Kennedy’s junior, reestablished his dominance and beat his foe in the following four finals, each time in straight games.
On Saturday night, the tables were turned.
On the undercard, Limerick’s Martina McMahon retained her MyClubShop.ie ladies title (21-9, 21-12) against Catriona Casey of Cork, with Kilkenny’s Kyle Dunne winning the Minor Singles.