Remarkable achievement by Kilmainhamwood to win Keegan Cup
"Remarkable,” is one of the words Francis Owens uses when to reflects back on how 25 years ago when his club Kilmainhamwood won the Meath SFC. “Incredible” is another term he reaches for as he delves further into how it all came about.
In 1996 Owens was in midfield on the Kilmainhamwood team that defeated Seneschalstown to win the Keegan Cup.
The achievement was a classic tale of a small, rural outfit with limited resources overcoming all the odds and claiming the most coveted trophy in Meath football, conquering some big names along the way.
The metaphor of David overcoming Goliath is over-used, when it comes to describing one giant-killing act or another in sport - but in the case of Kilmainhamwood, and how they won the SFC crown back in ’96, it is perfectly apt.
The achievement was also a perfect example of how a group of young players emerged through the under-age ranks.
How they then joined forces with some older colleagues, and coalesced into a powerful, formidable force. Unstoppable. These days Kilmainhamwood operate out of the junior ranks, but back in '96 they were the kings of the county, defeating Seneschalstown in the final on a cool November day to claim their one and only senior title.
“It’s only when you look back now, you see how it was such a remarkable achievement, how a club of this size could win the senior,” recalls Owens, marvelling at the good of it all.
“You see clubs like Ratoath winning senior championship now, but they have a big pick.
"With us once we went outside the starting 15 we might have just three or four players available to us.
"That was it then. It wasn’t because the lads coming through weren’t good enough, we simply didn’t have the numbers.
"We were just a small club. Given the resources we had it was just incredible that we won it. It’s great to hear people still talking about it now, remembering it.
"Not too long ago I heard Mattie Kerrigan talking on LMFM about how one of the best club games he ever saw was us against Skryne, a club that over the years could call on the likes of Liam Hayes, Colm O’Rourke, John McDermott, Trevor Giles, Mick O’Dowd, yet we could beat them.”
Kilmainhamwood’s journey to glory was certainly not smooth.
It was full of setbacks, disappointments and there was a terrible, deeply profound loss too endured along the way.
Francis Owens was one of a coterie of young club players who emerged through the ranks in the early 1990s and who, on the way, learned the art of how to turn promise into success.
“The team of ’96 contained about 11 u-21s and from u-12 level up we won Div 1 championships in all the grades,” Owens recalls.
That wave of emerging talent eventually lifted the club to greater heights. In 1993 Kilmainhamwood reached the IFC final where they were defeated by Carnaross with Owens, then a 16-year-old making an appearance as a substitute.
Learning from the experience the ‘Wood pushed on. In 1994 they made it back into the IFC final – and this time they prevailed, defeating Simonstown Gaels.
In recovering from the loss the previous year to eventually win the intermediate – under the management of Denis Farrelly - indicated the team had an ability to bounce back from crushing setbacks that might have sunk other, less resilient outfits.
For the '95 IFC campaign Paddy Clarke (who had guided Stabannon Parnells to a Louth SFC crown) took over as manager and brought with him a new approach.
“Denis Farrelly did the training up to then and he was very good. We would do the running and then ball work,” recalls Owens.
“When Paddy came in there wasn’t a drill we would do without the ball. We probably did more running in Paddy’s training sessions only we didn’t realise it. It was pure ballwork.
“Denis stayed heavily involved as a selector, but Paddy would come in to talk to us, explain the different scenarios that might happen in games.
"What we would do if we went down a man. What we would do in those spells in games when we wouldn’t be on top.
"He would get us to mentally deal with things like that. Doing all that gave us a significant boost.”
Owens talks of how Clarke got the players to visualise what might happen in the white heat of battle.
“Everyone is doing that now, but it was a whole new way of thinking back then for teams, and it worked a treat for us.
"In fairness we were very young and if a lot of things went against us on the pitch we might have lost the head, lost our way.
“We would have been relying before that on Brian Stafford and the Crosbies (Aidan and Martin) to get us together, get us to focus, but Paddy had us visualising all this before we went out.
"We knew when things went against us in a game what we had to do to get it back.”
Between Clarke’s astute management and the players’ talents and willingness to work, Kilmainhamwood made it to the 1995 SFC final, defeating Slane in the last four.
It was a joyous moment for the ‘Wood to get to a final, but delight soon turned to shock and sadness when just hours after the Slane game one of their young players, Matthew Cunningham, tragically died in a traffic accident between Nobber and Kilmainhamwood. He was only 19.
Three weeks after that terrible tragedy Kilmainhamwood played Dunderry in the final, but it just didn’t happen for them on the day.
Francie Owens feels young Matthew’s passing was still too raw; the tragedy too fresh. He recalls the profound silence in the dressingroom after the game.
“It wasn’t just the defeat that had the dressingroom in complete silence. You could hear a pin drop and it was all because of Matt, it wasn’t because of losing the final.”
Before the start of the 1996 championship Kilmainhamwood, with Clarke still at the helm, had solid reasons for believing they could do something significant.
They were motivated, fit, ready – but in the first round reality hit them with all the force of a icy, Arctic wind. They lost to Seneschalstown, 2-7 to 3-12.
This unexpected part of the script worked to ensure that from then on the players were focused, determined.
“We knew we needed to knuckle down and get it right or forget about the whole year.”
The memory of what had happened to Matthew Cunningham was, Owens admits, “a powerful motivation” as the ’96 campaign moved on.
Following the first round defeat the ‘Wood got back on course with a 3-9 to a 1-9 victory over Gaeil Colmcille and followed it up with a 1-13 to 0-14 victory over Navan O’Mahonys before they scored a remarkable 10-19 to 0-5, yes 10-19 to 0-5, win over St Colmcille's, surely one of the biggest SFC victories of all time with Ken Russell scoring 4-1.
That manner of that victory underpinned one of the great strengths of Kilmainhamwood. Their scoring power.
“When we would be playing teams like Summerhill at that time we would be looking at player like Billy Shaw and how we would prevent giving him any frees from inside the 45-metre line because he would punish you.
"When we played Seneschalstown we’d talk about how to contain Graham Geraghty and Colm Coyle.
"We used to talk to players from other clubs like Simonstown and Dunderry and they would be telling us how they would pin our team up on the wall and look at our forwards.
"They had a problem with all of them – Ray Magee, Brian Stafford, Larry McCormack, Raymond Cunningham, Aidan Crosbie and Colm Gilcreest.”
Owens believes that the victory over Navan O’Mahonys was a very significant moment in the evolution of the team.
“We played O’Mahonys in Carlanstown and it was an unbelievable game of football. It was a great win for us against a town team. To beat a team like O’Mahonys really lifted us.”
They marched onwards overcoming another hefty challenge in the last group game after a near four month break when they got the better of Summerhill, 0-15 to 1-11 and, in a sweet victory, they got the better of Dunderry 2-9 to 2-7 in the last eight.
In the semi-final Moynalvey were pushed aside 3-15 to 1-4, Ray Cunningham hitting 2-4.
Because of Meath’s progress to the All-Ireland final the Meath SFC decider wasn’t played until November and on the big day Kilmainhamwood were ready. They did the business to claim the Keegan Cup.
It was a victory that Francie Owens now fully appreciates as something special, “remarkable,” as he puts it. A perfect example of a David downing a Goliath.