40 years after coaching a local minor combination to an historic first county title, John Fintan Daly is still fighting the good fight for football. At the weekend, Knocknagree celebrated their All-Ireland JFC success, but their manager’s not done yet, writes Tony Leen

John Fintan Daly creases out a sheet of paper on the table and invites us into an ever-lasting 41st season as a football coach.

A sweeper-free year of living dangerously for Knocknagree’s junior footballers that coursed from the west Kerry Gaeltacht to the eastern promise of Jones’ Road.

“We played 45 games in 52 weeks, culminating in Croke Park last month,” he declares. “I don’t know has any team ever done that.” The map of progress bears him out. 146 get-togethers, 34 of the 45 games won, with an average score of 2-15. They hit 86 goals and 641 points in all, their average concession was 1-10.

On Saturday night they gathered in Killarney for get-together No 147, a festival of medals as Knocknagree players and parish celebrated their Cork, Munster and All-Ireland junior football championship successes at the Gleneagle Hotel.

Maybe in a drifting moment, the manager might have set this coaching chapter on the table with the 39 years that went before it and conceded that, yes, leading your own parish of 600 souls to All-Ireland glory in Croke Park is a wonderful thing, stirred sweeter by having two of your sons starring. But what made it pure nectar was playing good stuff, the way football can be played.

“One of my best educations in life came in 1989 when I did a trip around the world,” Daly explains.

“We have around 50 cousins in New Zealand and my father, who never got to do it, because he died suddenly of a heart attack on the football field when I was 20, said you should represent the family and go there, which I did. I spent some time watching the local rugby team, Hawkes Bay, in Napier.

“Every single drill they did was with the ball. It remains an abiding image with me of how to succeed in a field sport.

“No-one who saw Knocknagree this season can legitimately say they didn’t like what they saw. People complained ‘yer back line is a bit open, ye will conceded scores’. Of course, we will, the attacking teams in any field game will have that mark against them. But if you have the skillset to keep the ball most of the time, and a restart system where we rarely give away possession, then the opposition are rarely in possession of the ball. If they create scoring chances, we’ll create twice as many. That’s my philosophy.”

He says he’s been “stumbling” along as a skills mentor since his father’s sudden death turned him into coach of the Knocknagree junior team 40 years ago. He wasn’t yet 21, but his playing career was already over, wrecked by a twisted knee they’d no name for until Pat Spillane suffered the same cruciate ligament tear a few seasons after.

“There was no operation, I went straight into coaching. Con Paddy Sullivan was a selector alongside me in 1984 with the Cork juniors, he saw me with 10 footballs at a training session. ‘We will hardly need all them’, the Beara legend said. ‘When I was playing, it was with one ball - if we saw a second one we wondered what it was for because we could only play with the one ball.’ We won that All-Ireland junior title with the likes of Teddy McCarthy, Conor Counihan, Tony Davis, Danny Culloty, Mick McCarthy, and Denis Mulcahy from Midleton. As a player, if you see a plan in place for success, and a process, you will buy into it, because you can see success out of it. One of my strengths has always been my ability to communicate, one-to-one, and I would be good to motivate guys.”

Daly’s been coaching winning teams since Knocknagree and their Duhallow rivals Ballydesmond set aside a mutual enmity and forged a breakthrough Cork minor championship-winning team in 1978.

The victory for Pobal Uí Chaoimh, as they were known, was seminal for the fact that a rural combination defeated the mighty Nemo Rangers in the final. Daly and his kindred spirit in Ballydesmond, Billy Lane, had stirred something in the division.

They took the partnership to the county board for the right to go senior and lost by three votes but Daly had kindled a fire in Knocknagree. They won six of the next seven junior football titles in Duhallow, advancing to three county finals, winning a first for the club in 1984 against Mallow in Buttevant.

Having tasted inter county coaching involvement with the minors, U21’s and juniors, Daly felt ready to tackle the most awkward beast of all — putting aside divisional peeves to form a united Duhallow outfit at senior level.

“I was with Duhallow from 1986 to 1998, 13 seasons without a break, and we reached four finals, the last one in 1998. Between 1988 and ’98, Duhallow reached the last four of the Cork SFC every year. I made my mistakes but learned quickly. I had to. Divisional remains the hardest thing I had to do because we had to break down all sorts of barriers. We turned Duhallow into a club unit.

The players were told: every one of you guys is entitled to play at an upper level and if you are in a rural club, you don’t have to sacrifice that ambition.

“I think it’s a huge retrograde step by Cork the way we are treating the divisions now — I have a huge regard for what they do across the border in Kerry. Everything there is with the purpose of making Kerry football better. They find the best players and bring them through the divisional system.

“We build up lifelong friendships with that Duhallow group. We won senior titles in 1990 and 1991, when it meant something in Cork, who had won All-Irelands in 1989 and 90. But it was the consistency of results over that 10-year period that makes me proudest. Every team that beat us in that decade went on to win that county championship. In 1992, we were going for three-in-a-row in Macroom in a semi-final against a young O’Donovan Rossa team. They beat us by a couple of points and fellas said to us that Skibb wouldn’t do anything afterwards. They went on to win the All-Ireland.

“We only had one Cork footballer in Danny Culloty and when we won the counties in 1990 and 1991, we had to beat Barrs and Nemo in a semi and a final. We proved you could become a successful senior unit out of a junior club base.”

After Daly bowed out following the 1998 county final loss to Bantry Blues (“I was totally burned out”), other counties were quick to pick up the phone, Tipp and Laois among them. Daly had also guided a Cork Under 21 side to All-Ireland success in 1994. His credentials could scarcely be contradicted.

John Fintan Daly’s sons, Karl and John F, celebrate Knocknagree’s win in the AIB All-Ireland Club JFC final against Multyfarnham last month. Picture: Ken Sutton
John Fintan Daly’s sons, Karl and John F, celebrate Knocknagree’s win in the AIB All-Ireland Club JFC final against Multyfarnham last month. Picture: Ken Sutton

No call ever came from Páirc Uí Chaoimh though.

“Was I ever approached? No, not in any serious way. Perhaps in the mid-1990s, I ticked most of the boxes — minor, junior and senior (county titles). After winning the All-Ireland U21 in 1994, I thought was the right age, as qualified as anyone — Larry (Tompkins) got the job, but I’ve no gripe with the County Board on that.”

Nevertheless, at 61, his passion for and frustration with Cork football is palpable, as listeners to his C103fm commentaries can attest. The belief he helped stir and maintain in Duhallow is painfully absent in red, he maintains.

“It’s a problem we have with Cork football as long as I am alive. We are, without doubt, the greatest under-achievers in the history of gaelic football. Seven All-Irelands? We have four times the number of clubs as Kerry. We have no self-belief in Cork, we never had. We had a couple of exceptional teams — apart from 89 and 90 we have never won back-to-back All-Irelands. What happens our teams? We won an All-Ireland in 2010 and disappeared. Cork has done that historically. There’s a lack of self-belief, of ambition. Some people don’t like the truth. My house is in the parish of Rathmore, but I am a dyed-in-the-wool Cork man and I believe Kerry have got away with murder because Cork have got no belief.

“In 1994, we won an All-Ireland Under 21 title playing marvellous, attacking football. Brian Corcoran was the full back, Joe Kavanagh on the 40, Podsie O’Mahony from Ballincollig, Fachtna Collins at midfield. I was told we had to have a core from the stronger clubs. But that team was from 13 different clubs, and seven were junior clubs. We put the lie to that.

“Kerry will have diversification all over the field with their small clubs. We don’t go to enough trouble to find the players and bring them in. I commentated on Cork’s last four games in the national league and I can find no excuses for them.”

Daly knows how this looks. Having a pop. “This cannot be a piece about me knocking the Cork football set up, I won’t do that. (But) I do say there are some better players out there who are yet to be found, and I hope Cork find them in the near future.

“Does Cork have a style of play? Knocknagree won an All-Ireland, the biggest field championship maybe in the world with 1,000-plus teams, with a definite kicking game. Imagine in Cork if you put a plan in place and skills-based everything you did from underage. You’d be unstoppable.

“Why does Cork football feel so bad about itself? Why should we lack belief? We have two arms and two legs like all the fellas back in Kerry. A lot of the counties beating us nowadays would hardly have a population bigger than our divisions. It’s a joke.

“Clare beat us in Páirc Uí Rinn last week. They have probably 20 fellas actually at the genuine level to play inter county football and they can come to Cork and win. There’s something fundamentally wrong there.

“We went down to Waterford last May for championship. At the time they might have been statistically the 32nd best team in the country. It took Donncha O’Connor — a man it took far too long to be recognised on a Cork team — to come on as a sub at 36 to save their bacon. That’s where we are at.

“Cork went to Killarney for a Munster final and were beaten before they went on the field. They had no positive intention of winning that game. They didn’t expect to win it. The mentality is completely wrong. But it is easy to lack motivation when you know from the top down there is no belief there in winning anything.”

The management team of Ed McSweeney, John Horgan, John Fintan Daly, and Billy O’Neill, with the trophies. Picture: John Tarrant
The management team of Ed McSweeney, John Horgan, John Fintan Daly, and Billy O’Neill, with the trophies. Picture: John Tarrant

After eight years out of the game at a competitive level — “when you say no too often people forget about you” — Daly got a call from across the border. Milltown-Castlemaine, the home of his wife, Mary. Though that wasn’t the door-opener.

“Jerry Casey from Rockchapel, who was on the Duhallow side that won the back-to-back counties, had got them to two Kerry IFC semis, and come up short. We met about coaching ideas and soon I was back there doing a few sessions. The story goes that I took the job because my wife is from there, but that’s not what happened. I rediscovered the appetite.”

What followed was a remarkable run of success that took Milltown-Castlemaine to intermediate championship success, an unbeaten season in Division 2, a run through Munster (where one of their victims was Danny Culloty’s Newmarket), and onto an All-Ireland IFC final where they beat Davitts of Mayo.

That following summer, they advanced to a Kerry senior semi-final.

“Something happened on the way back home one day that changed everything. I went to see Knocknagree in a semi-final of a Duhallow championship in Banteer. It wasn’t just losing by 20 points to Rockchapel — it was the manner of the defeat. The defeatism.

“I knew the young players were there, there was a window of a year or two and if it didn’t happen, all these guys were going to be lost. They had played in 10n successive Division semi-finals and lost them all. Knock were in dire straits, and I had to do this for my family, kids and their friends. Milltown-Castlemaine would understand.”

On January 1, 2013, Daly brought his Knocknagree tyros into a circle in the local hall and asked them for the height of their ambitions. Fintan O’Connor piped up: ‘You’ll do a great job if we can get to a Duhallow final’. I am thinking about a lot more, I said. I’m in a hurry, life is short. Within three years I will have ye in Croke Park. And they looked at me.”

It took five years. There were misses in 2014 (to Millstreet) and 2015 (to Bandon in a county semi), but 2016 produced the steepest learning curve of all. In a county final that went to a replay, they kicked 14 wides in both against Gabriel Rangers and lost by a point.

“Since that day, the hurt we felt, I never let them forget it. We lost because we didn’t believe in ourselves. They tried to protect a lead and it cost them dearly, and they learned a serious lesson. The average age of the side was 22.

“What happened in 2017 will go down in history but they say you learn more from your defeats. And by God is that true. We never let them forget that Gabriel Rangers game. Incrementally we became a better side though. By this year’s Munster final against Declan O’Sullivan’s Dromid, we were so bloody-minded, we wouldn’t let it go. We were a point down with seconds left and won it in extra time.”

It was the first time in 21 provincial finals that a Cork club had beaten a Kerry one.

In Paul Keane’s All-Ireland final report for this paper last month, he noted: “Knocknagree defied their diminutive status by lighting up Croke Park with some excellent football. They dominated Multyfarnham in the first-half when they laid down the platform for victory and were 2-7 to 0-3 ahead after just 19 minutes.” Apart from their third goal in a 3-13 total, everything came from open play.

“That performance in the final was something I was very proud of. Their best forward was pushed back to sweep and I sent my 18-year corner-back, Michael Mahoney, up on him. He scored a goal.

“Before it, we never spoke about implications of winning, what it would mean to Knocknagree. I knew Croke Park was made for this team, we move the ball back to front very quickly. We went up to Croke Park the morning before and walked them through it. I had done that too with Milltown-Castlemaine to get the feeling of awe out of their system. It’s two sets of goalposts, four white lines. And we absolutely hit the ground running.”

They are Cork’s only All-Ireland football champions. Indeed, they are Munster’s only ones. Daly’s signed up again for 2018.

The sober part of Saturday night’s celebrations is that the Intermediate championship first round is only three weeks away. “It’s Rockchapel, local bragging rights. But we’ll play the same way. I don’t like what I call ‘Tyrone football’. That’s football in a phone box. I hate it. People won’t pay to watch that. Coaches don’t kick it enough because they are afraid of losing possession. Look, I am not a fool. I am not going to kick the ball away recklessly. Dublin is a template for the way football should be played. It’s a skills-based team. We could all learn so much off them.”

I think it’s a huge retrograde step by Cork the way we are treating the divisions now

 

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