Cockerels and pageantry, club weekend sprinkles stardust everywhere

Dan McCormack mentioned the photo in these pages earlier this week, the one taken at last weekend’s Offaly-Antrim Kehoe Cup final, of Michael Fennelly and Johnny Kelly together on the sideline with Offaly.

Cockerels and pageantry, club weekend sprinkles stardust everywhere

Dan McCormack mentioned the photo in these pages earlier this week, the one taken at last weekend’s Offaly-Antrim Kehoe Cup final, of Michael Fennelly and Johnny Kelly together on the sideline with Offaly.

The picture appeared on multiple newspapers before doing a few long laps around social media. In the photo, Michael is resting his left hand under his chin while Johnny, standing just a foot away from Fennelly, is checking the time on his wristwatch.

When I saw the photo on Twitter, the caption made me laugh: ‘How long left now Michael until we meet in the All-Ireland club final?’ Classic.

Timing is everything but the photo summed up the essence of hurling’s communal village. We’re all driven by the same passion but we’re all drawn towards each other by that passion too.

Michael and Johnny’s situation is unique but, the hurling community is so small, that hurling people generally find each other, or run into each other, at some stage along the way.

When I went to manage Dublin in 2009, I was consoling myself with the notion that, with Dublin starting out on the backroads in Leinster, it would be unlikely that I’d run into Clare too often around the highways of Munster. Before long, as Dublin started negotiating their way around the circuit, we started meeting Clare in huge league games before playing them in two massive championship matches.

When we first met in the qualifiers in 2010, Clare were managed by Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin, my great friend and neighbour from a few doors up the street. How much more communal can you get? When we played Clare in Ennis in 2012, another former team-mate, Davy Fitz, was managing Clare. A clubmate — Jonathan Clancy — was in the Clare dugout. You couldn’t make it up.

The wheel always turns in this game. When I was managing Kilmacud Crokes for the last couple of years, I was trying to take down some of the players who I would have given my life for when I managed them with Dublin.

When Ballyboden beat us in the 2018 county final replay, they were managed by Joe Fortune, who I was very close with during my latter years in Dublin when Joe was U-21 manager.

You can just imagine the craic at Offaly training this week. You wouldn’t get that scenario anywhere else but, in the GAA, you couldn’t make up half of the stuff that actually does happen.

Tomorrow could be Mick Fennelly’s last game. If it is, it would be some way to depart the stage if Mick was to captain his club to successive All-Ireland titles. We’ve spoken here before about the fairytale six months it would be for Brendan Maher after he was mired in the misery of rehab and recovery from a cruciate knee ligament injury this time last year.

It would be the ultimate journey for Borris-Ileigh to win an All-Ireland given their starting point, when they were hammered by Kiladangan in the north Tipperary final in September. Despite already having seven All-Irelands, I’m sure a lot of Ballyhale people would regard winning this one as their sweetest All-Ireland ever, because it’s a Tipp club lining up against them in the other corner.

The club scene always has more angles than a compass. It’s unique for three Kilkenny clubs to be contesting All-Ireland finals this weekend but it’s even more unique for two neighbouring Cork clubs — Fr O’Neill’s and Russell Rovers — to be heading to Croke Park for today’s Intermediate and Junior finals.

Can you imagine the craic over the last two weeks down around Ladysbridge, Shanagarry, Garryvoe, Ballycotton and Ballymacoda?

You could nearly puck a ball from one parish to the next. When the other crowd from over the road are in an All-Ireland final, they always have one over on you. But nobody can say that in Fr O’Neill’s and Russell Rovers this week.

Both of these teams have been framed around talented underage crops from the last few years and they’ll go to Croke Park full of intent and ambition. Rovers have looked impressive and I’d fancy them to get the job done against Conahy Shamrocks. O’Neill’s have looked like a machine since the latter stages of the Cork Premier Intermediate championship but the couple of red cards they picked up in the All-Ireland semi-final against Tooreen may ultimately cost them against a solid Tullaroan side.

Despite all Tommy Walsh has won with Kilkenny, his interview with Nickey Brennan on the pitch after the Kilkenny Intermediate final in October suggested that the win against Thomastown meant more to Tommy than any amount of All-Ireland medals and All-Stars.

If Tommy said that Tullaroan men were ‘going to die’ to try and win a county title, what will they do above in Croke Park this evening trying to win an All-Ireland title?

An All-Ireland club final will be all new to Tommy and the Tullaroan boys whereas it’s meat and drink to the Ballyhale boys. I’m sure Borris-Ileigh would like to have met another club in the final, one similar to themselves, and not the machine that is Ballyhale. On the other hand, Borris already have an All-Ireland winning tradition in this competition. Plus, given the route they’ve travelled to this point, and the confidence it has instilled in them, Borris won’t fear anyone.

They seem to be feeding off the energy the journey has created too. I haven’t passed through Borris since the county final. It was like a carnival back then but the colour and pageantry has apparently gone off the charts ever since. And that’s the way it should be.

The players and management also seem to be revelling in the hype and excitement. Dan McCormack also spoke this week about how chilled out and relaxed the camp is, of how there isn’t any madcap stuff, and that composure has been reflected in all of their performances since the north Tipperary final.

Everything they have done since has smacked of calmness, efficiency and solid structure. Borris-Ileigh have been very clever in how they have set up, especially in how they rotate Brendan Maher and Dan McCormack.

They’ll want to try and replicate that system as much as they can again now but any gameplan has to be completely dissected when TJ Reid is thrown into that mix. Dan going back as an extra defender allows Brendan to go forward but can they afford Brendan that licence if he’s trying to tie down TJ?

That’s harder again when Borris also have Colin Fennelly and Adrian Mullen to worry about. Evan Shefflin has also been playing great stuff.

I’m sure Ballyhale believe that there is even more in them again but, with every respect to Slaughtneil, Borris have come through the tougher side of the draw.

They didn’t play their best against St Thomas’ but they were very economical and Borris still saw them off. Brendan Maher has been the player of the championship but Dan McCormack, the Kennys, JD Devaney, Gerry Kelly and Ray McCormack have been playing out of their skins.

The bookies have Ballyhale at 1/3, and Borris-Ileigh at 11/4. With those odds on the Shamrocks, they certainly wouldn’t be carrying any of my 30 quid to win a tenner. It would hardly be 1/3 if Ballygunner were there tomorrow.

Borris will see this as a 50-50 game. They have ferocious momentum built up and I give them a great chance. They’ll have a right go but a lot of this will hinge on their discipline, and not conceding frees for TJ to pot. Still, whatever happens, Ballyhale should find a way to win.

I’m certainly looking forward to the weekend, both today and tomorrow. The All-Ireland club senior final day will feel different this time around because of the changed timing but it’s always a magical day.

There is always a sprinkling of stardust everywhere because there are so many different narratives attached to every story, every club, every journey.

One off-Broadway tale I’ll be watching out for with interest tomorrow is Paddy the Cockerel, the Borris-Ileigh mascot, and what kind of a day the cock will have. Trevor Groom dictates the cock’s itinerary on the day of a final but the cock will have to abide by the laws of Croke Park’s High Priests.

Before the county final in October, the cock appeared at the front of the parade with the joint-captain Sean McCormack. After the Munster club final victory in Páirc Uí Rinn, Paddy showed up on the podium — as he had done after the county final — as Sean McCormack and Conor Kenny lifted the cup.

Talking about Paddy the Cockerel is hilarious but that’s just another strand of the beauty of the club championship. The story goes back to the late 1940s when one of the Darcys from Ileigh would walk to the Borris-Ileigh matches with streamers on a cock’s leg.

Borris-Ileigh were so good in that era that they were the cocks of the north. That cockiness disappeared when the good times ended and the bad times arrived.

The last time one of Paddy’s descendants was in Croke Park was in 1987 but it’s a different time now and it’s difficult to know if Paddy will get to strut his stuff again tomorrow.

All I’ll say is if some steward tries to grab Paddy, before or after the match, and feathers are sent flying everywhere, God help the steward.

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