‘I’m now disgusted I taught them so much! I knew those boys were destined for good things’

AS HE ATTEMPTS to stifle the impact of Nenagh Éire Óg in the battle to be crowned Tipperary senior hurling champions, John O’Keeffe can reflect on his previous input into the development of some of their rising stars.

In a former career O’Keeffe, the Clonoulty-Rossmore captain and Portlaoise-based garda, worked for the Tipperary county board in a games development role. Coaching in the north of the county, he remembers some of the Nenagh players emerging with Jake Morris – a breakout star for the Tipperary seniors in 2018 and a key cog in the All-Ireland U21 triumph – a standout operator from a long way back.

“I’m now disgusted I thought them so much! I knew those boys were destined for good things. It’s amazing, I’d say the two boys, particularly Jake, I knew I’d see Jake in a Tipperary jersey and even part of the Tipp senior panel.

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“It’s amazing to think you’re coaching these lads and the next minute you’re coming up against them. That’ll be another good battle and I’m sure I’ll bump into the boys.”

They will cross paths in a novel final for Tipperary. Thurles Sarsfields, for so long the masters in the county, were knocked out at the semi-final stage by Nenagh.

Between them Clonoulty and Nenagh have lost seven finals over the last two decades, the former aiming to end a barren spell that stretches back to 1997 and the latter hoping to add to their only title to date, which was achieved in 1995.

A rural club based in west Tipperary, this will mark Clonoulty’s third final showing in nine seasons.

“I don’t think there’s any magic dust or spell that JD (manager John Devane) has put on us,” says O’Keeffe.

“It’s just everybody working extremely hard. That’s really what it’s down to and that’s fundamentally what the team is built on is a work-rate and everybody in for each other.

“We’re a small rural club out there. We haven’t massive numbers and our Junior A’s are going very well as well so if we can get 30 down to the field and everybody’s rowing in the one direction, it makes a massive difference to our club.”

Devane is now at the helm on the sideline after so long being a pillar of the team on the pitch. For the Thurles CBS teacher, the transition to management has been seamless.

John Devane (right) in action for Clonoulty-Rossmore in the 2010 county final.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“(It’s) been very, very easy. I suppose you miss it, of course you miss it, but the backing I’ve got from my own management team there, the club in general and the players.

“Look it all comes down to the players and everyone of them have pulled on the jersey at different stages during the year. I haven’t had any huge problems with the lads, they’re a really committed bunch. It’s just about working with fellas rather than managing them.”

There have been a couple of tricky challenges to tackle. The long bout of inactivity in the summer months for starters.

“I suppose the year we knew was going to be tricky to deal with because with the block in the middle of the summer with no matches, what do you do? Do you stay training lads? We took two months away from the field.

“So I would put a lot of that down to probably that you need to time your run for getting to quarter-final and so on after that if you can. And I would put a lot of that down to the freshness of it.

“Look I think we managed it as best we could. I think it’s something that the GAA or clubs or counties need to work together. It is frustrating for players I’m sure. A couple of lads we had went to America and came back probably even reinvigorated but it’s a grey area whether it’s going to work or not.

“You might say it has worked for ye that ye’re in a county final but I’m sure there are clubs out there saying they never got going again after the break. It’s frustrating for fellas, very frustrating for club players.”

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Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Clonoulty-Rossmore must also figure out how best to prepare with several members of their squad based outside the county.

“Look everyone has college lads, Cork, Limerick, Waterford are manageable,” outlines Devane.

“We probably have about six lads in Dublin between working and college. They’re the tricky ones. The rest of them you can get lads home from the other cities but Dublin is very, very tough.

“There’s no point in flogging lads either. They don’t really come down during the week because we can’t expect lads to spend five or six hours in a car of a Tuesday night and again on a Friday night to be giving everything that they have.

“We have a club up there that some of the boys do a bit of work with, which is great as well, and they sometimes meet themselves in UCD and do a small bit.

“It’s quite hard on a lot of lads but they are fresh and a relatively young team even though we have a good bit of experience there from seven or eight years ago being in two county finals.

“We’re very small and we need everyone to stay coming back. City clubs can lose players or gather players, we nearly work off the same base the whole time. So that’s very, very important to us.

“The lads would say that from 12 up along, we just have to keep lads coming to the field and if they’re friends are going, fellas stay coming for us and it’s great that way.”

The magnitude of the game will be stressed by supporters in the club but both O’Keeffe and Devane will opt for a low-key approach in fine-tuning matters to propel them over the line.

“It’s huge, it is big for us but we we’re trying not to get carried away,” says O’Keeffe.

“We’ll prepare to the best of our ability. In fairness to JD and all the boys have us in top condition, so all we can do is go and give a performance and if that’s good enough, that’ll take us there. It’s brought it this far and maybe one more step would be unbelievable.”

“When we went out the first day in Bansha against Mullinahone, it was just about getting a win and you’re trying to get a win every day you go out,” says Devane.

“I know it’s been a long time for both clubs since they got over the line so that’ll be very exciting for one of those clubs. Look, Nenagh have gone through the county championship undefeated, they’re a serious team.

“If we don’t close down Nenagh, they’ve a formidable forward line that can do a lot of damage as you saw there earlier on. All we can do is make sure we come here in the right place, the right frame of mind for this day fortnight and take the game to it and see what way it transpires.”

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