‘We believe we are coming into our prime’ - Cooney
At the start of this season, the Castlerahan players sat down for their annual chat. This time around, there was a new addition to the group, the Oliver Plunkett Cup. Other than that, says corner-back Stephen Cooney, not much was different from any other pre-season summit.
“There was no sense of sitting back and relaxing, this group are driven and experienced,” Cooney told The Anglo-Celt this week.
“I think it might be different if we had a high turnover of players but this group of players has been together maybe since the first final we were in, bar one or two players, so there has been that drive there to keep going and keep going.
“I know people have said about us that ‘Castlerahan are finished, they’re an ageing team’, but we sat together at the start of the year and we thought we’re coming into our prime now. If you look at the team-sheet, the majority of our team - bar the likes of maybe Cian Mackey, Ronan Flanagan, Brian Ennis - the majority of our team are 27, 28, 29, so I’d consider myself that we’re in our absolute prime now and that’s why we want to take advantage of it and win as much as possible in this period because we’re not all going to last forever.
“There’s going to be a time when lads finish football and we want to make the most of this team we have at the minute.”
That drive has taken the Ballyjamesduff men back to a fifth county final in succession. Deep down, they feel they should have more senior titles to their name by now and they are determined to put that right.
“You can see the work in the last couple of years. Senior Championships don’t come easy, it’s hard work to win them and that’s going to be the same next Sunday.
“We feel we’re good enough but it’s going to be a huge test, we know, with Ramor. In 2016, we had two chaotic battles with them and unfortunately we came out the wrong side, then we were there [in the final] in 2017 and last year, we finally got over the line. We want another one but it’s not going to be easy.”
The over-riding emotion last year, he says, was relief.
“To be honest, after the final whistle and for a few days after, it was more a feeling of relief. It didn’t really set in until a week or two after, when things settled back down, but I think it was more of a relief.
“That’s maybe helped us this year in that it seems to be a bit more relaxed between the team, now that we’ve finally gotten that pressure off us. We were in three and lost them but finally got over the line in the fourth one but if we were going into a fifth final, having lost four, the pressure would be sky-high.
“I think it has released a bit of pressure off us and we seem to be a bit more relaxed and a little bit more experienced in seeing out games and we don’t seem to panic. I think that’s been reflected in the results.”
Cooney’s memories of the final are sketchy. It “went by in a flash”, he says.
“It just flew by and it’s hard to remember. But we had experience and I think we showed it that day because we could’ve easily put the heads down and thought ‘here we go again’ and that’s testament to the lads - they upped it and we finally, finally got over the line.”
For the longest time, Castlerahan’s quest for a county title was compared to Mayo’s journey towards the Sam Maguire. As time has gone on, another comparison with the Connacht side can be made, and that’s in defence. As a unit, Castlerahan’s back six are regarded as the best in the county and the foundation on which their latterday attacking style is built.
“A few years ago, in the two or three finals we lost, it was a different style of football but since Donal came on board we’ve tried to change that and you can see that in our play now.
“Our defenders are top class lads and everyone gets along - we’re all a bit of a family. With a lot of teams you might have man-markers but we’re all comfortable and capable on the ball. Some of our defenders have even played in the half-forward line on occasions. We’re all comfortable and when we’re given the ‘go’ to go, it’s attack, attack, attack.
“It’s enjoyable to play, if we’re given an opportunity to go forward, we’re told to go forward at every opportunity and to back yourself. You can see that in a lot of the lads, like Enda O’Connell scoring three points against Killygarry. I’ve popped up and got a few. Paul ‘Lukie’, Fergal Reilly, Oisin Kiernan... they’re all capable of kicking scores. We back ourselves and some of the backs have gotten more scores than the forwards.”
Cooney is employed as a health and safety manager for a consultancy based in Blanchardstown. In common with most of his team-mates, Stephen lives in his home town, a factor which he feels has helped forge a strong culture.
“The culture around the team is very good and Donal [Keogan] has brought that on. He’s a driven, driven man and he’s installed that - it was there already but it’s been brought on to a different level.
“Another key thing is that a lot of our team are based around home. Maybe earlier in the year they’d be in college but in February, March, April we could’ve had 25 or 30 lads training which has helped and the fact that the lads are all around home, if you went into the gym during the week, there could be a gym full of the lads just doing their sessions.
“That’s a change from when I started playing football in that there was no such thing as gym-work. You would have a handful that might’ve been into it but now there’s a crew doing it and if you don’t, you’ll fall behind and the younger lads have seen that and seen the success we’ve had in the last while and they want to be part of it, which is a good thing.”
As for Ramor, Cooney insists his team are under no illusions as to the size of the challenge facing them.
“It’s a local derby and they’re always tight games. Ramor always want to beat us and we always want to beat them. I know in 2016 they got the upper hand on us and since that we had a bit of success in the championship and we beat them in the league final this year but that was a wet day in Crosskeys and league football is different.
“Come the business-end of the championship, there are no easy games. We know this is a brilliant Ramor team. Crosserlough were tipped as the team to beat, and they beat them - they’ve beaten them on two occasions this year - so we know that’s the task ahead of us and we know we’re going to have to bring our A game and if not, they’re going to take advantage of that.”