Yesterday’s 19th county football title might not go down as a thing of artistic beauty, but it will surely rank as one of the sweetest the club has ever achieved.
In a season in which they spent more time on the back foot than the front, Nemo quarried deep, once more, at Páirc Ui Rinn, to take the best Castlehaven could summon, before rebounding off the ropes with a classic counter-thrust in the closing stages of another cat-and-mouse decider.
Salvation comes in many forms, be it a blinding Micheal A Martin save, in the 37th minute, from Castlehaven’s Michael Hurley, which prevented them going five points down; or Barry O’Driscoll’s goal, from nowhere ten minutes later, which drew Nemo level and fatally undermined Castlehaven’s belief that, finally, they had seen off resilient Nemo. Where did that resilience come from? Well, 18 county titles help. If Haven were facing any other opponent in the Cork final, it’s unlikely they’d possess the unshakeable inner belief to repel Jim Nolan’s side over 120 minutes. When Haven eventually steel themselves to sit down to watch these finals back, they’ll point to several junctures where they looked out the gap and en route to their sixth Cork title.
History and heritage weren’t Nemo’s only allies. Against Douglas, Carbery Rangers, and now twice against Castlehaven in the final, the Trabeg team have looked vulnerable and glass-jawed. But no-one’s succeeded in applying the knockout blow to them in 2015, and no-one will now.
Once again, yesterday, they suffered the blow of losing Luke Connolly after 15 minutes, to the hamstring he injured last Sunday. But they’ve grown accustomed to upheaval and absentees this season, and it’s welded them tighter.
Barry O’Driscoll’s goal, in the 46th minute, was the game-changer, though, and came at the peak of Castlehaven’s superiority, as they led 0-9 to 0-6. Intricate passing looked to be going down a cul-de-sac, until man of the match, Conor Horgan, broke loose right of the goal. He had the nous — remember, he’s under-21 — to fist the ball across the square, for O’Driscoll to beat the post and palm the ball into the empty net. If one listened closely, one could almost hear the wind going out of Castlehaven and their army of support. Nemo smelt blood, and with James Masters now introduced for a scoring cameo, he and Paul Kerrigan put them two points to the good.
Nemo’s fear must have been legs — or the lack of them — in the final ten minutes. There’s a few of them the far side of 30, and when Castlehaven’s Stephen Hurley and Chris Hayes landed two gutsy points within a minute of each other, to level again at 1-8 to 0-11, one still struggled to see how Nemo could see this one out.
But they’ve had a lot of on-the-job, seat-of-the-pants training this season, and they’ve prospered, especially the rookies.
“We played Castlehaven in a county final two years ago, and ten of that team are gone,” Barry O’Driscoll reminded us afterwards. “That’s a huge turnaround and to be able to come back and compete reflects well. There’s a lot of young fellas have been blooded, like Conor Horgan and Ciaran Dalton, in the last year or two. We weren’t considered an outright favourite for this county, but the fact that we’ve got it, now, is a huge thing for the club.
“We don’t have a Colin Corkery knocking over sidelines for us, and that type of thing, but the way the game is played nowadays, you can’t have so many superstars in the team anyway, because you are grafting. It’s more workmanlike. This team has now won a senior, so I think we stand tall. I would have to say this is a good team.”
Horgan was a revelation yesterday. In and out of the senior side this summer, he hasn’t delivered fully on his promise, but yesterday he stepped up when Connolly limped off. “He’s a huge ball winner for us,” agreed O’Driscoll. “More than 90% of the time, if you are looking for him, he is going to compete with his life for it inside. He’s a massive outlet. We didn’t have a focal point in the first game. He picked up that mantle for us today.”
Horgan was again involved in the nerveless bout of tight keep-ball by Nemo, in the 57th minute, with Masters in the pocket, waiting to be teed up. He delivered as usual and Kerrigan applied the coup de grace, with a late free, to quench Haven for good.
It was the West Cork side’s fourth final in five years — they’ve won two — but this one will hurt more than any. There was no stage over the two games where they looked inferior to Nemo — indeed, for long periods yesterday, they looked more purposeful. But when we looked at the clock after 20 minutes of the first half, it was 0-3 apiece. You wondered how.
Young Conor Cahalane — one of three Haven changes to their starting 15 — began brightly, and though Nemo briefly led 0-4 to 0-3, Castlehaven had put some order on things by returning to their dressing room 0-7 to 0-5 in front at the break. Horgan had fired a warning shot across Haven’s bows, with a 16th minute bullet that struck the foot of the post, but it was nothing like the escape Nemo had when Michael Hurley latched onto a Mark Collins pass and bore down on goal after 46 minutes. It was the game’s defining moment and though Mark Collins pointed from the resultant phase of play, Michael A Martin’s save was as significant as it was stunning.
“We could have won it both days,” rued Jim Nolan, the Castlehaven manager, who must be commended for his grace in defeat. “I was thinking, during the game, whichever side gets the goal is going to win it and that’s exactly what happened. It was a tough, tight game. We didn’t get the breaks and that goal came at a point when we might have been just been beginning to stretch away. It was perfect for Nemo.”
Sweet, too, for the old hands like Dylan Mehigan, the outstanding David Niblock and Masters. But also, too, for Tomás Ó Sé, who finishes a glorious career with another county medal, his third and a dozen years after his second, with Gaeltacht in 2003. A nice final chapter for his autobiography, too — the updated edition.
P Kerrigan (0-4, 2 frees), B. O’Driscoll (1-1), J. Masters (0-2, 1 free), A. Cronin, D Mehigan, C Horgan (0-1 each) Scorers for Castlehaven: B Hurley (0-3, frees), M Collins (0-2), C Hayes, S Hurley, Seanie Cahalane, Darragh Cahalane, Conor Cahalane (0-1 each), A O’Reilly (own-point, 0-1).
M Martin; A Cronin), A O’Reilly, C O’Shea; K Fulignati, T O Se, A O’Donovan; D Niblock, M Dorgan; D Mehigan, B O’Driscoll, P Kerrigan; C Horgan, L Connolly, C O’Brien.
C Dalton for Connolly (inj, 15), J Masters for Mehigan (41); P Morgan for M Dorgan (56).
P Hurley; J O’Regan, D Limrick, T O’Leary; Damien Cahalane, C Hayes, R Whelton; S Dineen, D Hurley; M Collins, S Cahalane, Darragh Cahalane; B Hurley, C Cahalane, M Hurley.
S Hurley for Darragh Cahalane (37), S Collins for Hayes (58), S Nolan for S Cahalane (59).
J Bermingham (Cork).