- The Cork Premier SFC final between St Finbarr's and Clonakilty and the Senior 'A' final between St Michael's and Mallow will be live-streamed by the Irish Examiner
Mike ‘Haulie’ O’Neill is a most reluctant interviewee.
When approached upstairs in the Clonakilty clubhouse last Tuesday evening, Haulie immediately points to the selectors in his backroom team and politely requests that you converse with them instead.
But it’s the Clon manager we’d like to speak with, Haulie eventually agreeing to join us at a small table at the head of the room.
The first question asked of him is a rather obvious one to begin with, why exactly did he return to the Clon hot seat for the 2021 season?
Haulie, after all, is someone who has already brought county senior championship success to the West Cork club, masterminding as he did their unexpected 2009 triumph.
Thirteen years before that he had been part of Michael ‘Casey’ O’Donovan’s management team for the 1996 county championship-winning campaign.
Even as recently as 2015, he stepped in late in the season when Clon, after three successive championship defeats, found themselves in a relegation play-off and one hour from losing their senior status for the first time in 84 years.
A winning outcome, no more than 1996 and 2009, was again arrived at.
So, back to that opening question. Given all he has achieved on the sideline with Clon over the past three decades, what enticed him to step back onto the field.
“Covid,” comes the one-word reply.
We ask the butcher to elaborate.
“I was going to work, going home, going to work, going home, full stop. I needed something to distract me. That was basically it. There were no hidden agendas.
“We obviously didn’t think it would be this long of a distraction. It is what it is now at this stage.”
Having stood on grassy banks and sat in various stands when following this team in recent years, what were his ambitions for a group of players who had been unable to move beyond the quarter-final stage before this season.
“Did I think they had performed as well as they could do? No. After that, there are no guarantees with anything, but I felt they could play better than they had been playing.”
Having failed to emerge from the group phase last year, Haulie felt the players were putting pressure on themselves. He wanted rid of all that baggage, he wanted the players to simply play.
This return to basics, according to full-back Tom Clancy, has been the cornerstone of their run to a first county final appearance in 12 years. Clancy, as outlined on these pages earlier this week, was on the bench for that 2009 final after the then 17-year-old had been called into the senior panel midway through the championship by Haulie.
“Since Haulie has come back in this year, a big thing with him is he wants players to enjoy the training. Anytime we are going out to play a game, it doesn’t matter if it is the county semi-final or a challenge, he demands the same things from players, which is a focus on the basics and that you enjoy your football. We are definitely doing that at the moment,” said Clancy.
For Clancy’s defensive colleague Seán White, it is the respect commanded by the club stalwart that stands out.
“He brings a steeliness,” said the Cork senior.
“There is massive respect for the fact he has been there and done it all before. Anything he says is tried and trusted, it has delivered county titles in the past. Once he is talking, you listen. He is just a legend of the club and the history he has with the club meant it was very exciting when we knew he was coming in for the 2021 season.”
Internal excitement, though, didn’t lend itself to external expectation and there was nobody singling out Clon as potential county finalists when the championship threw in at the beginning of September.
Selector Eoin Ryan acknowledges such, but adds “it is no fluke” that the men from the west will march behind the band tomorrow afternoon.
“We are here on merit. Haulie is obviously a big part of that,” remarked Ryan.
“Haulie’s life is football and cutting meat in the shop. He is around ages, the experience he has is unreal. He has been in this position before.”
Back to the man himself, who described as “too long” the 12-year wait for this latest final involvement. And irrespective of how tomorrow pans out, it cannot be another 12 years before Clon returns to the showpiece event.
To be “constantly competitive” is his wish for a club whose fabric he is so woven into.
“You can see the facilities here, they are very good, so you need the senior team to be competitive. There is the world of work going on at underage. This county final will help that because young lads will see these guys playing in the decider and will want to emulate them.”
The same way Haulie’s players want to emulate what he oversaw against the Barrs 12 years ago.