How Demons got back where they belong

Daniel O’Mahony is about as Demons as you can get, which is one of the reasons he’s the coach of the team that are now back in the Superleague after a three-season absence
How Demons got back where they belong

TALKING TACTICS: UCC Demons head coach Daniel O'Mahony talks to his team during a break from play against Abbey Seals Dublin Lions. Pic: Larry Cummins.

To begin, a little ditty about Jodie and Dan. It’s one to rival Romeo and Juliet, because if there’s one feud to rival the Veronese one between the Capulets and Montagues it’s the Cork beef between Neptune and Demons.

Dan – or Danny, or Daniel, whichever you prefer – O’Mahony is about as Demons as you can get, which is one of the reasons he’s the coach of the team that are now back in the Superleague after a three-season absence.

His mother is Norma O’Leary which means his uncles would be Kieran ‘Beag’ O’Leary, about as savvy a player both the local and national intermediate scene has ever known, and Michael O’Leary, AKA Mickey Leary, the club chairperson for more than 20 of the past 25 years.

Dan came along in 1987, the year after, he can instantly tell you, the club won its first National Cup and the year before it won another Top Four national championship: that’s how steeped he’s in the club and its history. And he would add to that history himself as a player. Along with the likes of Carlton Cuffe, Kyle Hosford, Shane Duggan, David Murphy and Niall Murphy, he won multiple U17 Billy Kellys and U19 and U20 National Cups. He’d then progress to the Superleague team and again accumulate a litany of national honours, albeit he spent more time on the bench than off it, with stellar talents like the O’Reillys and Shane Coughlan understandably ahead of him in the playing rotation.

Then Danny met Jodie.

As in Jodie Black, daughter of Ken.

Ken Black grew up in South Carolina where he’d pick cotton as a nine-year-old and his first day in high school coincided with the first day schools in the state were integrated. In the autumn of 1984 though he moved to Cork, his former college player Terry Strickland having recommended the place to Black and having recommended Black to Neptune to be their new head coach.

His first day and first game in the city was a local Cork Superleague game against Demons. Instantly he became a feature of the fixture and the scene, dressed in his suit but tie and top button promptly loosened, a human fireball wheeling up and down the sideline. The previous season Demons had won the league. Neptune hadn’t even made the Top Four. In Black’s first season Neptune would win both the league and the Cup, thanks to his ingenuity and passion as well as two buzzer-beaters against Demons from Strickland. 

When Black came back to help the club midway through the 1988 season they went on to win the league and Cup again, once more pipping and tormenting Demons. Although he was now residing in Dublin, Black would always be a bona fide Neptune legend and his family forever Neptune.

It’s why his daughter Jodie many years later couldn’t resist making a remark about Daniel O’Mahony’s attire at a colleges tournament in Little Island many moons later. She was playing with DIT while he was there to help out his friends from UCC on the table and with the 24-second shot-clock. Naturally he was wearing a UCC Blue Demons top, and as their paths crossed after a match, naturally she had a pop about it. He couldn’t help but laugh, and subsequently stayed in touch with her on social media.

A few months later the Blacks received a trans-Atlantic call in their house in Coolock. It was a familiar voice: Terry Strickland, checking in on how his old pal Ken and his beloved god-daughter Jodie were doing. Well had they news for him. Guess who is just after coming here for dinner?! A Demon!

**** 

The same summer Daniel’s uncle Mickey and the rest of the Blue Demons executive made the hard call to withdraw from the Superleague for the 2019-2020 season, Jodie and Dan made a similarly-big decision by moving from her hometown of Dublin to his native Cork.

Both were governed by economics as much as anything. Getting a place in Cork would be considerably more affordable for a newlywed couple than a place in Dublin. And as for Demons, well, as Mickey puts it, “We simply had no team and no money.” 

Back when they had a team not just winning the league but dominating it, they’d always find a way to find the money. But when the likes of Coughlan and Niall O’Reilly began to retire and the O’Sullivan brothers gravitated back to their native Ballincollig, the club could no longer mask or justify its financial pressures.

And so, like the club famously did back in 1993 in taking a five-season hiatus from the top level, it reset. It would prioritise its U20s. Enter a team into the fledging national league in that age grade. “Give it all the bells and whistles you would a Superleague team,” as O’Leary says. “The gear, the gym, the games in the Mardyke Arena rather than just court two in the Parochial Hall.” 

And a new coach. His nephew Danny.

For O’Leary and the club in general, O’Mahony offered that ideal blend of novelty and tradition. He had coached Demons teams at U17 and U18 level, but that was way back before he moved up to Dublin to be with Jodie. The young fellas wouldn’t know him. And that was a plus. “He was a new voice,” says O’Leary, “and we were presenting him as that. He was coming down from Dublin and that gave us a new impetus.” 

Apart from his infectious, personable nature, he was also coming down having picked up considerable coaching knowledge in Dublin. He played a season with Killester’s Division One team, then fell in with a DCU local league team coached by Jodie’s Superleague coach, one Mark Ingle.

“I learned a lot from Mark,” says O’Mahony. “He wouldn’t socialise with his Superleague [women’s] team, but with us we could have a game on a Wednesday and then go down to the Goblet for a few drinks and just talk hoops.” 

Soon after O’Mahony was approached to coach in Kubs, firstly in the Dublin league and then in their first season operation in the first division of the national league. That team had been backboned by an U20 National Cup winning team and coming back to Cork he would bring aspects of that template and apply it to Demons.

Like with Jodie, it has been a marriage made in heaven for him. That first season with the U20s, both coach and players instantly gelled, reaching the semi-finals of that national league only for Covid to cut it short. Then later that summer he connected with his old teammate and Irish international Kyle Hosford who had spent Demons’ first year out of the Superleague playing in the top flight with Neptune. While the Superleague was Hosford’s natural habitat, O’Mahony sensed Neptune wasn’t. Demons was his rightful home and if he came back maybe Demons would soon return to their proper place too: the Superleague.

“To be honest, it was the easiest sell of all time,” says O’Mahony. “Kyle wasn’t after one of his greatest playing seasons, and I just felt [a return] would be an opportunity for him to seal and fulfil his legacy as a Demons great.” 

Hosford acknowledges O’Mahony made his pitch well. “Through the years I’d have looked up to someone like Shane Coughlan, my favourite Demons player ever, and the legacy he created and left. From the chats with Danny, the way I looked at it was that if I stayed with Neptune another year, it would just be another year for them or for me, but with Demons it would make a huge difference, where I could be in a position to influence a core group of young fellas to set the club up maybe for the next 10 years.” 

When the club made the call to enter the first division of the national league for the 2021-22 season, O’Leary as club chair would initially have been satisfied if the club won roughly half their games and were competitive in most of the others. 

“That doesn’t sound very ambitious but it was realistic but the season was meant to be a stepping stone. Then Kyle decided to return. That changed everything.” 

Hosford will openly admit that. “We had a one-year goal. We weren’t going into Division One to hang around and just get some experience. Stay there and you can get into bad habits. It was all about getting the job done and the club back up to Superleague where it belongs.” 

That mission has been accomplished. Last season they won both the D1 league and Cup, losing only one match in total (though funnily enough it’s the one scoresheet – an away loss to Carlow – that O’Mahony physically still carries with him, it stung and informed him so much). 

Now here they are back in the top flight, with seven of their 14 players being members of that U20 team they prioritised and nurtured three years ago. Combine that seven with Hosford, Carlton Cuffe who returned after a stint in Killarney, the two Hannigan brothers who have just joined from Neptune, along with the three professional players they’ve signed up and they expect to be competitive from the get-go.

There will be some growing pains. “We’re still finding our stride and you could say our identity,” says Hosford. Both he and O’Mahony reference a pre-season game against Tralee. Early on in the third quarter they were only four points down but two turnovers, two three-pointers and 30 seconds later the gap was out to 10. The intensity, the margin for error, at Superleague level is so unforgiving. That’s what they’ve to adjust to but the way they came back to get within four of Tralee in that game gives them the belief that they will.

It’s a club as well as a team that continues to evolve. That generation of exceptional administrators and clubmen – Dineen, Deasy, Byrne, O’Sullivan – who were there from the De Paul days back in ’59, take more of a backseat now. No more Mick Sull looking for your annual script. But they’re still there somewhere, still happy to look after the club’s successful annual golf classic. Seánie Murphy no longer presides over the club nursery either. The Barry brothers, Jason and Jamie, run the academy now, but still Seánie is good and willing to give a hand with the U11Bs. Every Monday there are still Demons teams training in the Parochial Hall. And every Sunday morning the Mardyke is packed with kids sent by parents for whom the name Demons still resonates all these decades on from when the club was formed and would go up against teams coached by Black.

And that legacy will be evident again tonight with what is bound to be a bumper attendance in the Neptune Stadium: Demons’ first game back in the league is against, naturally, Neptune.

Ken Black won’t be able to make it down; a couple of his other daughters are playing in Swords Thunder’s opening game of the women’s national league season.

But Jodie will be there, as will her daughter and his grandson, little Maisie.

And who do they support?

Suffice to say Daniel O’Mahony isn’t the only member of his new immediate family that will be donning Demons attire this evening.

Granddad Ken might still slag Daniel over a pint about the three leagues and two Cups he won at Demons’ expense (while they had to settle for the one Cup and two top Fours on his beat), but now Jodie as well as Daniel will meet his Tom O’Sullivan era and raise him Shane Coughlan’s when Demons ruled Cork.

Truly, love conquers all.

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