Knocknagree on ‘the hardest championship in the country to win’

In tomorrow’s Munster junior club football final you have a classic derby: Knocknagree of Cork versus Dromid Pearses of Kerry.

Knocknagree on ‘the hardest championship in the country to win’

Spice. Enmity. Bitterness.

Not so fast, says John Fintan Daly, the Cork side’s manager. It’s more nuanced than that.

“I’ve said it in the past, I think we may be unique among all of the clubs in Cork in that we’re actually in the parish of another county.

“We’re as close to Kerry as you can get without actually being part of Kerry, and I think if you look at our football style, it’s more Kerry-influenced than Cork-influenced. It’s a small area but there’s no hurling, it’s all football.”

Go further. Daly praises the near neighbours: “Rathmore, Gneeveguilla and Knocknagree are sister clubs - they support us, and we support them. They’ve given us huge support in the campaign.

“Will there be people from those clubs there tomorrow to support us? Absolutely. We’re lucky to get this opportunity and we’re hoping to make the most of it. The average age of our team is 22 and a half. Does it mean the start of something in the future? None of us knows that, we don’t know where they’ll be or what they’ll end up doing.

“In fairness, the employment situation around our area in Duhallow is not so bad. We’ve lost a few players to career issues, lads who’d have to move to Dublin and further afield, but generally speaking we’re lucky enough. A lot of the lads are in Cork or nearby.

“We’re not complaining about that, it’s just a reality.”

Daly knows what the bright lights are like. He steered Duhallow to senior county success in Cork in 1990 and 1991, but winning with Knocknagree is special.

“I had a couple of very enjoyable years back in Milltown-Castlemaine in Kerry, we had a lot of success, but there’s nothing like this. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with All-Ireland teams with Cork, and winning counties with Duhallow over a 13-year stretch . . . but it’s hard to beat this. Your own neighbours, your own home club.

“Winning the county with Knocknagree - winning the junior county, it’s without question the hardest championship in the country to win. There are over 100 teams involved, while Dromid Pearses are in a championship with only 15 teams.

“I’m not criticising Kerry. Far from it. I’ve done a lot of coaching in Kerry, they run their club competitions very well, with a fantastic county league.

“I know they only have 63-odd clubs and Cork have four times that, but they run things well and they keep standards up.

“They have something we don’t, relegation, which most sports have. I think that’s very important to keep standards up.

“You’re probably aware that Cork teams haven’t beaten Kerry in the intermediate or junior club championship since Carbery Rangers in 2003. Cork have never beaten Kerry in a Munster junior final, so that’s pretty stark.

It’s also great to have the competition, a point Daly makes with force.

“I’ve never hidden my admiration for Sean Kelly for organising these competitions. He got huge criticism in some quarters for opening Croke Park temporarily to soccer and rugby, but with the same stroke of his pen he gave junior and intermediate clubs the aspiration to play some day in Croke Park. All of a sudden 95 per cent of the playing population could dream of playing in Croke Park with their club, and I don’t think he’s ever gotten the credit he deserves for that.

Successive administrations said ‘no, we have too many fixture issues as it is’.

“I’d go so far as to say it is the greatest single thing the GAA has done for its small clubs in the last twenty years. Isn’t that what the GAA is all about?

“The other morning I heard Sean Cavanagh on the radio - a riveting interview - talk about getting his club, Moy, over the line, the first time his club got that far, and he said it was the greatest moment in his career. Sean Cavanagh!”

He also admires the footballing tradition behind tomorrow’s opponents.

“I’ve watched them and I’ve no doubt they’ve watched us closely. Remember, they come from a part of Kerry that’s traditionally been very successful. Look at the number of club titles that have gone to South Kerry.

“There was one year that Skellig Rangers won the junior All-Ireland title on the same day that St Michael’s Foilmore won the intermediate title. Cahersiveen won a junior All-Ireland title and followed that with an intermediate All-Ireland.

“So that’s the kind of expectation in that part of the country, and Dromid Pearses would be part of that. They’re managed by Declan O’Sullivan, they have a good young team and there’s huge credit due to them, they’re a small club like ourselves.

“But they come from a county, and an area, which expects to win big things. In Kerry there’s an automatic attitude of ‘I’ll play for Kerry someday and win an All-Ireland medal in Croke Park, or my club will make Croke Park and I’ll be there with them’.

“You don’t have that attitude in Cork, I think. We’re on the border with Kerry and I’d try to drive that into the players, to have that attitude. We were back training within 48 hours of winning the Cork championship and people were surprised by that, but that’s our focus - to go as far as we can. That’s not being big-headed, and in that context Nemo’s win last weekend is a big inspiration.”

The Cork city’s side victory over Killarney’s Dr Crokes is a development Daly returns to again and again.

“I go back to the mid-eighties with Duhallow and I was the bane of Nemo’s life then. We beat them a few times and they beat us, but there was great respect between us, too. I continue to have huge respect for them because they’re the flag-bearers, really, for Cork football. The fact that they did what they did last week is huge, and they deserve massive credit for it. Only two years ago we saw Clonmel beat them with a last-minute goal, but now they’re back. Crokes suffered the same as many All-Ireland champions, they’re tired and beginning to falter, but that isn’t to take anything from Nemo.

“It’s a huge inspiration because for the last few years we’ve been pathetic in Munster, and in Cork we accept that. We shouldn’t. We should demand better standards, and Nemo do. Their win isn’t going to get any scores for us tomorrow but it might give us a bit more confidence.

“And it’s no harm for Kerry as well as Cork that it changes things around. That won’t affect Dromid Pearses, of course. The last time they won in Kerry was 2011; we won with Milltown-Castlemaine that time and we travelled the same road together, ending up in Portlaoise, and the infamous game when they were blackguarded by a Tyrone team.

“They probably feel there’s unfinished business there, so I know how hard they’ll be to beat. If they win we’ll shake hands, but we’re going out to perform.”

And to enjoy it, despite the length of the season.

“This is about two small clubs meeting in a Munster final,” says Daly. “Going on history we have no chance, but we have a nice young team, an attacking team. We have decent forwards and go out to score - it’s not about what I call playing football in a phone box, I believe in letting the ball do the work. We enjoy it and we’re just waiting for the opportunity.

“It’s been a long season. We’ve had 130-odd get-togethers, 38 games played, and the 39th on Sunday. And after that a county league final to play as well. So it’ll be 40 games in 2017: a lot of work.”

And a little bit more to do yet.

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