Knocknagree are dreaming big
By John Harrington
In some ways, Knocknagree captain Matthew Dilworth can hardly believe he’ll be leading his team out onto the Croke Park pitch tomorrow for the AIB All-Ireland Junior Football Final against Westmeath’s Multyfarnham.
But it never felt like an impossible dream either because team manager John Fintan Daly told them it was always an achievable goal. And when Daly talks, the Knocknagree players listen.
Daly is something of a local legend because of his track-record as a coach both with his native Knocknagree and other teams.
When he was just 22 he coached an amalgamation from Ballydesmond and Knocknagree called Pobail Uí Chaoimh to win the County Minor Football Championship, and that team remains the only one from the Duhallow division to achieve the feat.
He guided Knocknagree to the Cork Junior Football Championship in 1984, was a part of the management team that helped Duhallow win back to back Senior football championships in 1990 and 1991, and in 1994 he coached the All-Ireland U-21 winning Cork footballers.
He also coached Kerry club Miltown/Castlemaine to the All-Ireland Club Intermediate title in 2013, and it was that achievement he dangled as a carrot before his players after they won the Cork Junior Championship last year.
“The main goal was always Duhallow a divisional championship first and obviously a county in the last couple of years,” said Dilworth.
“But he'd (Daly) always be mentioning there his success with Miltown, that he got to an All-Ireland final and it is possible once you get out of the county to get to this stage.
“So that was in the back of the head.”
Knocknagree enjoyed convincing wins over Tipperary’s Knockavilla Donaskeigh Kickhams and Waterford’s Sliabh gCua St Mary’s on the way to a Munster Final meeting with Kerry champions Dromid Pearses.
Kerry clubs had won the previous nine Munster Junior Club Championships in a row, but Knocknagree weren’t overawed by the prospect of facing a Kerry club in the Final because, in a curious geographical quirk, they share a parish with two of them.
Knocknagree is just inside the Cork border, but it’s part of the Kerry parish of Rathmore, as are the Kerry GAA clubs Rathmore and Gneeveguilla.
“We all went to school in Rathmore in Kerry, every single one of us,” said Dilworth.
“We’re used to them bringing home Sam more often than not or even just the Munster finals in Killarney, we're only 20 minutes from there. We're used to seeing Kerry teams beat Cork teams.
“John had that driven into us for the Munster final if Dromid had won in Munster and beaten us, there would have been ten Munster titles in a row at junior (to Kerry).
“So that was always in our mind getting that one over on a Kerry team. We're used to playing Kerry teams from school and in challenge teams. We're so close to Kerry, maybe that was a difference for us that we were used to it.”
It turned out to be an epic Munster Final that went all the way to extra-time before Knocknagree finally prevailed.
“It was a rollercoaster of a game really,” said Dilworth. “There was some build up to it as well. I suppose we went behind in that game, we got two goals against us but we never panicked really.
“We'd been in that situation so many times over the years that we don't really panic in those situations.
“We went down a point with ten second to go. We managed to get a short kickout and work it. Thankfully Fintan O'Connor got on a pass from Anthony his brother, the shot was blocked but it just went over the bar.
“That easily could have gone wide. It's just crazy to think, so little time left in it and if that kick had been blocked or your man got a better block on it, we were out.
“But once we got to extra-time we moved up a gear then. I think we won by three in the end. It was unbelievable looking back on it how we managed to get out of jail. It's just about believing and keeping going.”
Belief won’t be a problem tomorrow. John Fintan Daly has told these Knockagree players they can be All-Ireland champions, and they take his word as gospel.