By Paul Keane
It's well over a dozen years since a young Mark Bergin trudged away from Croke Park after the 2011 All-Ireland club final figuring he'd someday get a chance to atone.
The free-taker scored six points for O'Loughlin Gaels that St Patrick's Day but they were well beaten by a rampant Clarinbridge.
It turned out there wasn't a second chance for the Kilkenny city club, not so far at least, because while O'Loughlin's regained the county title in 2016 and contested that season's provincial decider, they were well beaten by Cuala.
A further seven years on, they're back at the Leinster final stage and will face Dublin opposition again in the shape of Na Fianna at Croke Park. Bergin, now a 34-year-old married father of one, and a school principal, doesn't need reminding that time moves on quickly and that seizing the moment is what it's all about.
"I was only a young lad at the time," said Bergin of the 2011 All-Ireland loss. "You think you might get another chance but it took six years just to win Kilkenny again and another seven to get back here now where we are. It's not easy, when you get your chance you've got to take it."
Brian Hogan and big full-forward Martin Comerford were the established county men on that O'Loughlin Gaels team of 2011. Bergin went on to win an All-Ireland medal with Kilkenny in 2012 and he captained his county in 2017.
Hogan is now the club manager while current All-Stars Mikey Butler and Huw Lawlor, along with Kilkenny's Paddy Deegan, make up half of their powerful defence. To his credit, Bergin is still going strong in attack.
He is grateful to boss Hogan, who took over for the 2023 season, for his sensible approach and willingness to work around the needs of the players.
"He set a plan in place and he was very, very fair to us," said Bergin. "If weekends off or a couple of weeks' holidays were needed, there was no issue and I think that really brought people together. Once the real stuff started then in August we were full steam ahead. It's been absolutely super. To be honest, I couldn't speak highly enough of him."
After a horror 2022 championship, when O'Loughlin Gaels suffered a Round 1 defeat to Mullinavat, Hogan and his new management team could easily have gone the other way and taken a hard line approach.
"It was the worst defeat we had in a long, long time," said Bergin of that 2022 setback. "Hogie came in and he is just brilliant. He surrounded himself with great people. Mikey Comerford is there as well, our strength and conditioning coach, he's been with Kilkenny too, super. We just kind of said to ourselves, let's give it a good rattle and thankfully we did.
"We had scares along the way this year, we beat Mullinavat by two or three points in the quarter-final, same with Bennettsbridge, beat Ballyhale then by a point in the final. It was tough so when we won Kilkenny we knew we had to give this a good go in Leinster and I'm absolutely thrilled to be preparing for a final."
Beating Ballyhale in that county decider had the effect of making the Leinster championship appear wide open. The Shamrocks club had after all dominated in recent seasons, winning the last four Leinster titles. But O'Loughlin Gaels have a sneakily good record themselves.
In all, they have played 12 games in the provincial championship and won 10, picking up titles in 2003 and 2010. Their only defeats were to Cuala, in the 2016 final, and to Birr at the semi-final stage in 2001.
Their form so far in this year's provincial campaign has been impressive with nine and five-point wins over former champions Mount Leinster Rangers and Kilcormac-Killoughey.
Bergin said that boss Hogan, a bit like the great Brian Cody whom they both played under with Kilkenny, likes to keep his playing style simple.
"We are probably playing the ball to the lad in the best position," he said. "That's what we are saying and he's just leaving it up to the players to take over. Brian is that type.
"There is no strict tactics or anything like that, you just play what you see. That's how he is. There's no rules or no strict guide, it's off the cuff."