Carbery Rangers' captain James Fitzpatrick putting the bad daze behind him

The 2014 Cork senior football championship final was in its 42nd minute when it all went a bit pear-shaped for Carbery Rangers.
Carbery Rangers' captain James Fitzpatrick putting the bad daze behind him

First, there was John Kelly’s goal, then James Fitzpatrick’s departure. In less than 60 seconds, the favourites from West Cork had lost momentum, the lead and their midfielder.

The Ballincollig fans were still on their feet celebrating Kelly’s equaliser when Carbery Rangers ‘keeper Paul Shanahan floated the kick-out in the direction of Fitzpatrick. The Rosscarbery midfielder had Sean Kiely for company and as both men rose to claim possession, there was an almighty clash of heads.

Both men, dazed, collapsed onto the turf of Páirc Uí Chaoimh and, after staggering to their feet some minutes later, were subsequently guided from the field. Kiely reappeared with 10 minutes remaining, but Fitzpatrick’s day had come to an abrupt and painful end.

The 28-year old doesn’t remember the closing stages of the county final or the four unanswered points which delivered Ballincollig a first Cork football crown. The entire second half, he says, is a blur. “I was knocked out in the second half - and that is all I can remember,” says the captain.

He can recall the opening half as if it was yesterday; Carbery Rangers kicking the first six points and enjoyed a 0-9 to 0-2 lead after 21 minutes. He can also picture the tide turning and their opponents’ run of six scores before referee James Bermingham blew for half-time

“It was an amazing game. We were up by seven and they clawed it back. They’ve a great never-say-die attitude. You saw it against Nemo there in the semi-final two weeks ago. They were down by six points, came back and won it. Their mentality is very good. They’ve a great mental spirit. There has been other games where they’ve been down and they clawed each one back, ground out results.”

Delving deeper into the 2014 decider, he adds: “It was a game we should have closed out. It was maybe that lack of experience of being in a final which didn’t see us through that day. Ballincollig’s more experienced players stood up and pushed them over the line.” Regret?

They had, after all, travelled the scenic route to take themselves within sight of the mountain top. There were semi-final defeats in 2010, ’11 and ’12, plus a quarter-final exit in 2013. They’d been consistent to a point, but not to the extent that they could be deemed relative certainties to make the climb again in 2015. And they didn’t, either. The penultimate hurdle once more tripped them up.

“There has never been regret. We’ve been in plenty of semi-finals going back the years, but there has never been regret. 2014 was a massive learning curve. It was my first county senior final. It is great to be back there so hopefully, we can get over the line this time.

“We have a great bunch of lads here and the mentality of the team has been excellent. If you were looking in from the outside, you’d be saying, ‘God almighty, they must be distraught after losing year after year after year. That is not the case. It is always a constant learning curve. We’re 10 years senior now so it is always a massive learning curve. There has never been regret. There is disappointment but we just take another step into the next year.”

Fitzpatrick, a production supervisor with Kerry Group in Carrigaline, joined the club’s senior set-up in 2006 and while there are a good few soldiers, namely Declan Hayes, Anthony Roche, Kevin MacMahon, Seamus Hayes, John Hayes, Stephen Murray and Alan Jennings, serving at the coalface longer than him, he doesn’t believe tomorrow’s fixture will be their final spin on the merry-go-round.

“We played Clon over in Enniskeane in my first championship game in 2006 and we got a right hiding. It was quite the introduction. A good few lads I played with that day are still there.

“I don’t think Sunday is the last-chance saloon. These guys are flying fit. They have come back from a lot of losses. You see the mentality of these fellas to come back each time. They just take it in their stride. They are going to be thinking that it is coming to an end for certain people, but it is the younger fellas coming in that is driving on the older fellas.”

During those 11 years, Fitzpatrick had never played under an outside manager until Douglas native Ronan McCarthy took over from Micheál ‘Haulie’ O’Sullivan during the winter.

“The work that Haulie, Johnny Murphy and others have done over the years has been great, but that fresh voice, and we all know the experience that Ronan has with Cork teams, has been brilliant. The big thing is that he has been putting more emphasis on the players and allowing the players to problem solve on the pitch. He is giving us more freedom.”

Another newish face down West has been Tipperary defender Robbie Kiely who, given his work commitments with EMC in Ovens, transferred from Arravale Rovers at the beginning of last season. Tipperary’s progress through the Munster and All-Ireland series took from club duties and so he failed to garner a starting berth for the first round and quarter-final victories over Clyda and Valley Rovers respectively. But there is no doubting that he won’t be behind the band approaching 4pm tomorrow.

“Robbie is one hell of a footballer,” says fellow half-back Padraig Hodnett. “He brings a great professionalism, he’s an all-around footballer, he’s a great kick-passer, great runner, great tackler — he can do it all. He’s been a great asset for us and hopefully, he can make the difference on Sunday.”

The missing pieces of the jigsaw?

They’re hoping so.

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