Now is the hour for Kanturk hurlers

It began at Castletownroche in April of last year.
Now is the hour for Kanturk hurlers

Since then there have been trips to Kilbrin, Milford, Páirc Ui Rinn, Mallow, Austin Stack Park in Tralee and Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds.

There was a December weekend spent in London, an 11am St Stephen’s Day session in Banteer hall, a New Year’s Day get together in the local field, two consecutive weekend sleeps in The Heritage Resort, Killenard and a waterlogged pitch in Newbridge which meant the first of those journeys up to the midlands was for naught.

For the Kanturk hurlers, the road to Croker has been eventful and enjoyable in equal measure.

Manager Donagh Duane and selector Pádraig Kearns were reminiscing last week. Their All-Ireland semi-final win over Middletown of Armagh was a couple of days old and it had finally sunk in that the men from Duhallow were off to Croke Park.

The pair recalled a conversation they had early in 2017. Duane, having not long hung up his boots, was beginning his first season on the sideline.

And there was pressure on the new management given 2016 had ended without a championship win and involved a relegation scrap.

The pair had one goal; to get over Castlelyons in the first round of the Cork Premier intermediate championship. Do that and relegation would be avoided. Ten months later and they stand one hour from All-Ireland glory.

“Being involved in a relegation fight is demoralising. It is not where a club wants to be. To be now heading for Croke Park is an incredible achievement for these lads,” Duane said.

“It was funny when Pádraig came up to me and said, ‘remember our goal last year of having to beat Castlelyons to get the pressure off everyone’s shoulders’. It’s been an incredible turnaround.”

Indeed, it has.

Much has been made — and rightly so — of what Slaughtneil’s dual players have done in recent seasons. Kanturk’s own feats are not to be sniffed at. While they were busy securing promotion to the senior hurling ranks in Cork, they also landed a county intermediate football championship title. There was a crossover of 12 players between the two teams. Combine the codes and the club is 15 championship games unbeaten.

Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash is one of the select few from the hurling team not to figure for the footballers. He’s thankful to be part of such a special group.

“I’ve been playing with Kanturk since 2001 and we were junior then. All the clubs in Duhallow at the time were below in junior hurling. “You have Knocknagree playing football today in Croke Park. Duhallow would have been seen predominantly as a footballing stronghold.

“We are the first team from Duhallow to go senior in Cork, which is huge. We would be fortunate enough with the group of players I have grown up with — although I’m the senior statesman now.”

It was their neighbours Meelin, mind, who were first from the division to make a stir on the hurling scene, winning the All-Ireland junior club championship in 2011.

“I remember Meelin’s great celebrations after that win and we always thought to ourselves, wouldn’t that be fantastic if Kanturk could get there,” Duane remarks.

“We did always feel that if this group applied themselves correctly, the opportunity may present itself.”

On paper, certainly, the potential was there. Nash minding the posts, a defence containing John McLoughlin, Lorcán O’Neill and 2016 Cork U21 Darren Browne. Lorcán McLoughlin at midfield, with Liam O’Keeffe, Aidan and Ian Walsh pulling the strings further forward.

And Duane has no problem admitting that once they got past Kilmaley in a titanic Munster final clash,which required extra-time, they felt a Croke Park appearance was attainable.

“Of course you say you take it game-by-game, but you’d be lying if you said you weren’t thinking about getting to Croke Park at the end of it.

“Look, when we saw what these guys could do against top-class teams, we started to really believe we could go all the way to Croke Park. That Munster final win put it in concrete that we can get to Croke Park. That was a major turning point.

“This is a once in a lifetime shot for us, a small club in West Duhallow. These lads deserve their shot in Croke Park. These guys wanted to train through Christmas, they wanted to keep sharp. There is no better squad in Kanturk’s history to have this cut on the big day.”

Aidan Walsh is well familiar with big days out on Jones Road. He was there in 2010 when the footballers lifted Sam. Sunday is different, though. “I’ve been lucky enough to play and win in Croke Park, but there is nothing like this. Nothing like doing it with your club, your friends, your family.”

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