O'Brien thrilled to bridge half-century gap
By Kevin Egan
The year that Wicklow hurling manager Casey O’Brien was born, the Garden County’s hurlers enjoyed their last national trophy success at Croke Park. On that occasion the team that was captained by Paddy Reilly, and managed by Paddy Croke, won the All-Ireland Junior title thanks to a one-point win over Hertfordshire.
O’Brien was on the pitch in Tullamore when Wicklow last won a national adult title, the 2003 All-Ireland ‘B’ final when a brace of goals each from Wayne O’Gorman and Edward Kennedy helped them to a 4-16 to 2-13 victory in their final against Roscommon, and yesterday afternoon he was on the sideline overseeing proceedings as his players found a different gear in the second half to power past Donegal and turn a six-point deficit late in the first half into a five-point lead late in the second.
“52 years is a long time to wait to lift a cup in Croke Park,” said the affable St. Patrick’s club man following his team’s 1-20 to 3-12 win.
“I’m delighted for the players, I’m delighted for John Henderson going up there, he’s done so much. He’s been a pillar of the team for a long time. I was here in 2011 and 2012 with John Henderson, with Andy (O’Brien), with Christy (Moorehouse), and with Mikey (Lee) and we didn’t get over the line. I’m delighted for them lads to win.
“Without a doubt, they’ve been great servants. But it’s still a young team along with those older lads. If we can keep these guys together, there’s no reason why we can’t be back here next year in a Christy Ring Final,” he declared.
For long stretches of the first half, it looked like even competing in the Christy Ring wasn’t on the agenda, never mind reaching a final. Donegal’s running game, and the clever distribution of Ronan McDermott at full forward, had Wicklow in a defensive muddle, and the Tír Chonaill men were full value for their lead.
Over time however, Wicklow found a way to get themselves into the game.
“We knew coming up that Donegal have won here in 2018 and 2020. They’re an experienced team, they looked settled, and it took us a while to settle. But we’ve been in this position before; we were down against Armagh, we were in trouble against Fermanagh, but these lads just keep fighting. There was no panic,” he explained.
In the first half, he declared their problem to be failing to “do what we were supposed to do”.
“We weren’t getting between the man and the ball to make it difficult, and to win the dirty ball, we weren’t winning enough of them. The runners were causing us problems, particularly the two wing forwards, so we made two changes at half-time and Danny (Staunton) was fantastic, and Matthew (Traynor) was fantastic when he went in.
“Andy (O’Brien) got a great goal and we thought he might get another one. But he is 35, it’s a hot day and he was tiring. Gavin (Weir) went in and the ball stuck with Gavin, he was working hard in there. Eoin McCormack, David Maloney, Jack Doyle had a fantastic game, Hendo was brilliant, Martin O’Brien, the whole lot were brilliant. Conor (McNally) caught some great balls there in the goal, the whole panel, I can’t say enough about them.
“And hopefully the kids that were here watching this - and there was a good few of them – hopefully they look at that and see that the hurling’s not too bad,” he quipped, no doubt hoping that the next gap between Croke Park victories wouldn’t be anything like as long.
Understandably, Donegal’s Mickey McCann had a very different tone, and afterwards, he lamented his team’s failure to build up enough of a lead when they were in control during the opening 35 minutes.
“We had a great first half, but we probably didn’t have enough on the scoreboard, considering the possession,” was the Donegal manager’s perspective.
“With the chances we had in the first half, we probably should have been seven or eight points up. Still, we had the breeze favouring us in the second half but it didn’t go according to the plan at all, we seemed to go route one a lot.
“When you break it down in two or three weeks’ time, it’ll feel like a good season, but right now it’s hard to take.
“Donegal hurling’s probably in a good place. A few years ago, if you went to play Wicklow, it would be a given that they’d just beat you, so now we’re in a position where we’re putting up performances against teams like them. But a moral victory wasn’t the aim, the aim was to win the Rackard Cup. I felt we were good enough, and it just didn’t work out in the second half,” lamented McCann.