The unlikely lads

IN early 1977, near where Duhallow and East Kerry are split by the River Blackwater, a small hostelry hosted a low-key meeting with grand ambitions.

In Ballydesmond and Knocknagree, a clutch of young Gaelic football players had been raising eyebrows, both with their schools and with their respective clubs at juvenile level. That humble get-together yielded an amalgamation that would soon send shockwaves around Cork GAA.

Just over a year and a half later, the unthinkable happened. This newly-formed Pobal Uí Chaoimh outfit wrapped up the perfect year with an incredible victory over the mighty Nemo Rangers in the 1978 minor county final.

This was a time when minor sides from the city had a total monopoly on the county title; only three other occasions in history had seen glory for countryside teams.

This was a time when the city champions would get an automatic spot in the final, while the divisional winners would have to run the gauntlet with their fellow country cousins through what was rather primitively referred to as the ‘rural’ championship.

The Pobal boys, full of a self-confidence derived from naivety and good leadership, had no intentions of letting Nemo just turn up and collect the trophy. A 2-6 to 1-6 victory ensured victory and last Saturday night, the heroes of that amazing October afternoon in Macroom met up again at the same pub that had hosted the genesis of it all, Bob’s Bar.

Medals and memories are one thing. But bringing the group back together after 30 years — some hadn’t met since — held a special symbolism that became tangible as they gathered before the meal for one more team photo.

Everyone stepped naturally back into their role. The captain Donie Kelleher, a goalscorer on the day, sat centre middle while all around him, his team mates huddled together, arms folded as they bantered with each other; the same jokes rekindled after three decades.

Badgering them into position was John Fintan Daly, the Duhallow coaching legend who has tasted success at every level. He was one of those who gathered in the same building back in 1977 to get the Pobal Uí Chaoimh concept off the ground. It would last until the early 90s.

“We knew it was the right thing to do at the time,” points out Daly.

After the Ballydesmond minors lost the 1976 Duhallow final to Millstreet, Daly enlisted Billy O’Riordan, future chairman John P Bradley, Donal Leader and Billy Lane and Pobal Uí Chaoimh was born, the name inspired by the O’Keeffe clan that reigned in the greater Knocknagree district in previous centuries.

“It wasn’t just one year that it suddenly came together,” insists Daly who would go on to achieve county success at junior and senior level with Knocknagree and Duhallow. “In 1977, we won the Duhallow league and championship double with 11 of the 1978 side. We went into the ‘rural’ championship against Aghada. We had 24 wides and a missed penalty — they got three wides and beat us by a point.

“We had two Cork minors and we had four or five others who were of county standard. Five or six of the Knocknagree lads went to Rathmore and played for Kerry Vocational schools who won the All-Ireland that year. Rathmore won the All-Ireland too.

“Knocknagree won the Duhallow junior and U21 championships the same year. We got to the county U21 final and lost by three points to the Barr’s. Ballydesmond, prior to that, had won four Duhallow U21 championships in-a-row. We then won three in-a-row starting in 1978. So there was a fantastic connection between the two clubs.”

Part of that unity came from the border state of mind which dominates these parts. According to Daly, half of Ballydesmond is picked from Kerry players and Knocknagree is in the Rathmore parish. And all this at a time when the Kingdom was about to embark on their famous four-in-a-row.

Far from the tense rivalry you’d expect from close neighbours, everyone recalls a composed unity of purpose. There were two selectors from either club with the chairman, Mr Bradley, given the casting vote, a situation which he insists today never arose.

That democracy was reflected in the final team sheet: eight from Knocknagree and seven from Ballydesmond.

“We all thought alike,” says Daly. “It didn’t make a difference if a player was Knocknagree or Ballydesmond. We only had 18 players who were capable of playing championship and we were lucky enough with injuries.”

There was one scare however.

“(Midfielder) John C Horan lives up in the mountains, and himself and a few of his friends decided to go off dazzling rabbits in the middle of the night. There was a guy with a pellet gun who didn’t seem to notice that John C was between himself and the rabbit and he shot John C, in through his leg and cracked his femur. At that time we thought he may never play again. He missed out on two All-Ireland medals that spring but he was back in time for the championship that June and he never looked back.”

Another scare came on the day of the ‘rural’ semi-final against Youghal in Ballyvourney. Goalkeeper Joseph Jones, commuting from his new home in Cork at the time, mistakenly instructed his taxi driver to drive to Ballingeary.

“Twenty minutes into the game Joseph arrived, white as a sheet and I put him straight on,” says Daly. “The first thing he did was concede a penalty, we were only two points up. A very irate wing back, Noel O’Connor, wasn’t a bit happy with him and told him he wouldn’t leave alive if he left it in. Joseph saved it.”

Jones is even further afield nowadays, the goalkeeper travelling from the Hague in Holland to meet his old team mates.

“They contacted me through my sister-in-law who is a solicitor in Cork. Apparently there was a famous team from Ballydesmond looking for me. I’m living abroad so I’m always looking for a reunion. I haven’t seen some of these people in 30 years.!”

The aforementioned irate wing-back now lives in Jersey and is another not to have seen most of the players since that day.

“Four or five of us started in UCC the day after,” O’Connor recalls. “And that was it, we just moved on.”

A challenge game against Feale Rangers, who themselves were set to compete in the Kerry decider, was arranged for the lead-up to their own final.

“Coming off after that game, I knew we were going to beat Nemo,” recalls Daly. “They were the bigger team but we ran them off the field. They were very impressed because we absolutely tore them asunder. I knew going down to Macroom this was a special team with a special mission.

“Ephie Fitzgerald was Nemo’s scoring threat. They had never lost to a country team in a championship game.

“(But) we were a very difficult team to play against. Nine of our starting 15 were naturally left-footed. Five of the six forwards were left-footed, the exception being Tim Vaughan. Their backs found it very hard to get to terms with guys that were playing off their left legs. It was an amazing situation.”

Donie Kelleher’s second half fisted goal proved crucial in holding them off. As the other goalscorer Tim Vaughan points out, this was a time in Ireland that wanted for heroes and self-belief. These young men had no role models to look to, the likes of Ballydesmond-born Cork star Donncha O’Connor.

Then they were brought together to play minor football and all of a sudden, John Fintan Daly had them convinced that they could run through walls. There was this certainty they’d beat Nemo, a mindset they would then take through life.

POBAL UÍ CHAOIMH TEAM: Joseph Jones; Donal O’Mahony, Neilly Cronin, Carl J Daly; Noel O’Connor, Eamon Kearney, Sean Goulding; John C Horan, Denis Lane; Gene Riordan, Donie Kelleher, Tim Vaughan; Donal O’Connor, Niall O’Connor, Denis O’Connor.

Subs: Andy Goulding, Gene Sweeney, David O’Connor, Gerard O’Connor, Denis Cronin, Tadgh Ryan, John Buckley, Donal Murphy and Danny O’Connor.

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