The night after Ballincollig surprised everyone by stepping over Nemo Rangers into a first Cork county football final, manager Michael O’Brien sat his management team, some players and members of the club’s executive down, writes Tony Leen.
Two weeks and counting to the biggest 60 minutes in the club’s history, he wanted one small thing for his players.
That everybody calm the f**k down.
Smalltown sport is littered with tales of teams who played the occasion, not the game. Ballincollig have been trying to win a senior football title since 1886.
Perspective was always going to be an early casualty once the semi-final was won.
And so O’Brien, a mild-mannered individual who stepped up from the club’s minor hurling team at the beginning of the year, eschewed all the ritual pre-final paraphernalia and razzamatazz. He told the committee there was no need for new gear, or specially embroidered polo shirts or training tops.
He’d been a player himself. One of his selectors, Jerry Ring, was on the Ballincollig team that won the Cork Intermediate Championship 20 years ago. When they thought a senior title was only a matter of time. Because in Ballincollig, every season is the one where the potential ripens. This one wasn’t going to be lost at the altar of hype.
“We can buy all those tee-shirts now, because we have what we want,” said O’Brien after yesterday’s come-from-behind historic first title.
“We said a lot of things at the first meeting we had with the players last December, but the one thing we all agreed on was that there would be no talk of county titles. It was boring old one game at a time. In years gone by, Ballincollig would be talking about county titles in December. The first time a county final was mentioned this year was two weeks ago (after beating Nemo in the semi-final).”
It’s a salutary lesson for sides who get a fleeting shot at history. December meetings and vows made in what defender Liam Jennings describes as the club’s “rusty, old-school gym” resonate now because Ballincollig have crossed the rubicon. But the two weeks between semi and final is when strategy can often succumb to neon lights.
“We asked the players to deliberately avoid getting caught up in the hype. How do you do that? Don’t be heading down the village after training. Just leave the dressing room, sit into the car and go straight home. That was key,” said O’Brien.
“There was no tops, no shorts, no new socks, we didn’t do any of that.”
Anyone who eyed Ballincollig’s celebrations after their first round win over St Finbarr’s in a dour Páirc Ui Rinn struggle last May would be in no doubt about the manager’s one-game-at-a-time credo.
“There was a reason for that,” smiled full back Liam Jennings. “The amount of effort we put into preparation for that game was unbelievable. If we had lost that it would have been a massive downer, especially coming after the year we had in 2013 — hammered out the gate by Carbery in Round 4 and relegated in the hurling. People were very down around the club.”
It also convinced the players — if they needed it — that Ballincollig could grind out a win when they had to. “We went down to the Páidí Ó Se tournament (in February) and though we had a bit of craic, we won the tournament and came through a few right tough games. Other than the first 15 minutes in today’s final, I don’t think we’ve been dominated by a team all season.”
That’s a remarkable transformation for a side in Division 2 of the Senior Football League in Cork, but their pace and mobility is of the highest standard. It will be difficult to get the players back down for a Munster Club SFC tie against Kerry opposition on November 16, but their manager is already thinking ahead. For a man who wasn’t looking beyond yesterday’s final, he already had his football clock set four weeks hence.
“We will give Munster a real shot. We have to. We’ll take a couple of days for this, and then we will refocus.”
It’s a big ask, nonetheless. Jennings tried his best to bring some perspective to the elation but his words spelt delirium. “This feels very good. It’s beyond belief. A lot of this group of players were relegated in the hurling last year, and we took that to heart. We were at fault, the fellas that headed off to the States. That was tough. I was suspended last year for playing illegally over in America. Things were at a low ebb.
“It’s some turnaround. I did not see this day coming.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved