Carlow footballers go from strength to strength
By John Harrington
The country might be gripped by snow and ice right now, but Carlow football is enveloped by a warm glow.
Turlough O’Brien’s team have built on last year’s epic Championship adventure through the All-Ireland Qualifiers by winning their first four matches in Division Four of the Allianz Football League.
They’re playing good football, Carlow supporters are coming to watch them in droves, and the feel-good factor is through the roof.
“Sure, stop, the county is on fire, really, to be honest,” O’Brien told GAA.ie.
“There's no comparison between previous years when Carlow might have struggled in the League and maybe had one or two games in the Championship.
“Heads would be down and players would be leaving panels and there would be a lot of uncertainty around.
“Now we're a very united bunch. When we finished up after the championship this year there was a fantastic feel-good factor across the county and I think it's reflected in the county championships, in fact.
“There were bigger attendances at the games and the quality in the championship was very good, including the Junior Championships. Maybe a rising tide lifts all boats.
“That carried forward and the players were really chomping at the bit to get back. We feel we've unfinished business, really. We really do want to see can we get out of this Division, that's the goal. We're going well so far and we're pleased with the progress we've made.”
As O’Brien alluded to, getting their best players on the pitch previously proved to be a consistent problem for Carlow.
Many didn’t view the prospect of an unsuccessful League season followed by a short Championship campaign as being worth the commitment required. That has all changed now, though.
“All the Division 4 counties have experienced that,” said O’Brien. “When they don't have any success, that players, for one reason or another, might drop out for a year or two and come back then later on.
“But, really, to achieve anything you need consistency and you need a panel of players that you can work with. We've had that for the last four years now, really.
“And to give credit to the players involved, there's a hardcore of about 10 guys there who are there for the best part of the last 10 years.
“They're absolutely model inter-county players. They have stuck with it through thick and thin and it's nice to see them now getting a bit of exposure and getting some wins under their belt and feeling that we can achieve something that we haven't done in a long, long time.
“You talk about commitment and Dublin players are fantastic and Kerry players are fantastic, but real commitment is down in the lower Divisions.
“These guys are putting in much the same effort as top teams for and no recognition for it and no plaudits and no medal in their back pocket.
“But they're equally as committed to it and love to play for their county as much Bernard Brogan or anybody else. It's great for them now at the moment, they're getting a bit of exposure and making progress.”
It must be easier for the Carlow players to make that commitment when O’Brien has put such a quality management team in place.
The retention of highly rated coach Steven Poacher from Down was crucial, but the support structures in general around the panel are top class.
“Steven is a huge addition to the backroom team,” said O’Brien. “A tremendous character as well and he really hits it off with the players.
“He's a dynamo, really, and a terrific coach. I think he's very under-rated, I think he's going to have a big future ahead of him. We're delighted to have him involved with us.
“There are a lot of elements to it all and we have a very strong backroom team. Our selectors Tommy Wogan and Benji O'Brien are two great Carlow men and go to every game in Carlow so every player is considered for inclusion in the county panel.
“I think the players recognise in the county as well that they're going to be looked at and they appreciate the effort that's going in from that end of it.
“And then we have Damien Sheehan as selector as well, but he's also in charge of strength and conditioning. Damien is Head of Strength and Conditioning in IT Carlow who are now our main sponsors.
“We have a tremendous relationship with the College. We do all our strength and conditioning work in the College, and their facilities are second to none.
“It's been brilliant for the past three years to have that association. And, of course, we have our own Centre of Excellence in Fenagh which is a fantastic facility to have too.
“It's great to go up there on a Tuesday and Thursday night and see the footballers training on one pitch and the hurlers training on another and the camogie players on another pitch.
“It's a real hive of activity and it really brings the county into one location and I think all the teams are feeding off each other there as a result.”
It’s in O’Brien’s nature to praise others, but there’s no doubt that he himself is the key figure in Carlow football’s renaissance over the course of the past couple of years.
When others doubted, he always had faith in Carlow football, and he’s put a huge personal effort into raising their standards.
“Ah, sure, look it, Carlow football has been a massive part of my life since I was 10 years of age,” he said.
“My father was County Board Secretary and I would have been deeply involved as a young fella.
“When he was County Secretary I used to spend the summers cycling around the county delivering the post for him to all the club secretaries so I got to know the County very well at a young age.
“So, yeah, it's been a huge part of my life. I've been very involved with my own club, Éire Óg, my whole life and, it's funny, when you're in a weaker county you often don't feature on the radar.
“We hear all the success stories of the Kerrys and the Dublins and the so on, but people in Carlow are equally committed and as proud of their county players and county team as any other county is.
“We're very quick to write off the lower ranked teams. But, really, the truth of it is, if a county is organised properly and everyone is pulling the same way then every county can compete.”