27 May 2022

MAN BEHIND THE WIRE: Clonbullogue's success shows how the tide can turn for small clubs

MAN BEHIND THE WIRE: Clonbullogue's success shows how the tide can turn for small clubs

Clonbullogue doing their celebrating on the pitch.

IT has been absolutely fantastic to witness the success that Clonbullogue have enjoyed in the past year as they added the Leinster Club Junior Football Championship title on Saturday to the Offaly Intermediate Football Championship they took last year.

It has been a sensational year for the small east Offaly club. Any success would have been grabbed with both arms by a club who are not used to winning but the quality of the football they have played, the excitement they have generated far outside of their parish boundaries has come as a great bonus to them.

They have really been a breath of fresh air to the Offaly club football scene in 2021. They may have been playing in the county's third tier but they are clearly capable of playing at a much higher level and they will be very strong contenders for the Senior “B” Football Championship this year.

Indeed, on the basis of their form in the Leinster campaign, they will be very close to pre-championship favourites. They will come up against very good teams in senior “B” football, vastly experienced players and sides who have been knocking on the door in recent years without getting through. They will also face their parish neighbours, Bracknagh who were relegated from senior football last year and who will relish the opportunity to take them down a peg or two.

The 2022 Senior “B” Football Championship, however, will be a long way from Clonbullogue's minds as they prepare for the All-Ireland series – they face Kilmeena of Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final on the weekend of January 29-30 and an almost unimaginable window of opportunity has opened up for them. An All-Ireland win would really put the icing on the cake for them and with the quality of football they are producing, it could happen.

Clonbullogue are into uncharted waters now. Kilmeena will be unknown to them and you just don't know what you will come up against once you face new opposition from other counties. There could be brilliant teams out there but no matter what happens, Clonbullogue have achieved their potential this year and they are into bonus territory now. They do have an All-Ireland semi-final and possibly an All-Ireland final to play and the stakes are as high they come but they really do have nothing to lose. They can go out, enjoy themselves and just play football. If they win the All-Ireland, great. Their place in folklore will be assured but if not, the season has already been a remarkable success.

Clonbullogue's success story has captured the imagination of people all across north Offaly. There is a real charm about what they are doing and it also gives great encouragement to every other small club out there. You can go through decades without success but if you keep working, keep doing the right thing, the tide can turn. It has certainly turned in Clonbullogue's case and the goal for them now is to make top flight football, to see how they get on.

Clonbullogue is a small, rural area. It has a village and for years, was more known for its success in the Tidy Towns competition than anything else – they dominated the Offaly Tidy Towns Competition for decades.

The GAA and football has played a central role in Clonbullogue life since it was formed. It is by far the biggest sporting outlet for young men in the area and they are very passionate about their sport.

They don't play hurling and very few people in the Clonbullogue area have picked up a hurl. Success has been in thin supply. They have won three Junior Football Championship titles – 1965, 1980 and 2015 – and their 2021 triumph was their first intermediate.

They have lived in the shadows of big brothers. While Clonbullogue is the parish name, they could only look on with envy at the success of one of Offaly's most cherished football clubs, Walsh Island – the home of some Offaly's greatest footballers and most successful senior football teams.

Walsh Island is one of Offaly's most famous clubs. The six in a row they won from 1978 to 1983 was arguably the greatest ever achievement by an Offaly club side and it is almost impossible to debate the assertion that they were Offaly's greatest ever internal football team.

Players from Clonbullogue, however, made a crucially important contribution to Walsh Island's first golden era – Walsh Island won the Senior Football Championship in 1933-1934, 1937-138 and 1942-1943. Two sets of brothers from Clonbullogue, Bob and Jim Hipwell and Dan and Broughan Cocoman, were key players in those years, with Jim Hipwell and Broughan Cocoman playing for Offaly.

It is ironic to note that Clonbullogue played an unwitting part in Walsh Island initially becoming so successful. Clonbullogue had been formed in 1923 and before that, players from their area had played on the Bracknagh side that won a Junior Football Championship in 1912.

In the early 1930s, Clonbullogue and Walsh Island made an agreement that whichever club won the Junior Football Championship first would have the pick of players from the other club for the following year's senior campaign – intermediate only came into existence in 1949. Walsh Island made that breakthrough when taking their first junior title in 1932 and the following year they won senior with the considerable help of Clonbullogue players. When Walsh Island had their next golden era from 1978 onwards, it was very much on their own with a new generation of Connor's, O'Connor's and Mulhall's leading the charge.

A Clonbullogue parish team, Eire Og had competed in the Senior Football Championship final in 1970, losing out to Gracefield – the captaincy went to their star player Willie Bryan as Gracefield had no starter on the Offaly side in 1971 and he became the first player from the county to lift the Sam Maguire Cup that year.

As a brilliant new generation emerged onto the scene, Walsh Island made the inevitable decision to go it alone and the 1970s and 1980s was a period of struggle for Clonbullogue for the most part. The 1980 junior success was a cause of tremendous celebrations but that proved to be their last championship win until 2015 – a crucial success as they had slipped back to junior and desperately needed to get up to the third tier.

Before that, Clonbullogue had survived at intermediate for years. They had some excellent footballers in the 1990s into the 2000s and were competitive, very difficult to beat without truly looking like winning a championship – Tullamore beat them in the final in 2004 and most recently, they were pipped by Shannonbridge in the 2019 decider.

They had a number of players who played junior football for Offaly in the 1990s/2000s, other very good club footballers. Players like Darren Quinn, Liam Judge, Brian O'Neill, Niall McEvoy, Declan Dempsey and Tom Crampton were among the Clonbullogue men who played junior for Offaly in those years and were very comfortable at that level – Crampton was a talented, physically strong footballer but boxing proved to be his main sport and he reached a high national level in this discipline. Quinn was on the Offaly senior football panel in 2000 and played a couple of league games for them.

As those players entered the veteran stages of their careers in the 2000s, Clonbullogue remained a tough nut to crack but again, there were always better sides out there when it came to championship.

Things began to change in recent years. The parish underage side St Broughan's have had a great run of success. They won the Minor Football Championship in 2016, took underage titles in other grades and Clonbullogue backboned many of these teams. They had the greater number of players on some of them and also began to supply players regularly for Offaly minor and U-21/20 county teams. Indeed some of the most talented young players in the county were from Clonbullogue.

Part of the problem for Clonbullogue is that none of them came through and established themselves on the Offaly senior side. Clonbullogue have had players who played senior football for Offaly but they have not had an established, regular player on the team and panel in decades. Some of their young players in the past decade or so looked to have this ability but for whatever reason, it didn't happen.

There may be very good individual reasons for this, including players just not being good enough for the higher level but it has raised questions inside and outside the Clonbullogue area. They will be hoping that this will change now and in Keith O'Neill they have a player who seems to be very well equipped for the step up. Just out of minor last year, O'Neill was crucial in the 2021 All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship success, coming off the bench to torment opposing defences with his blistering pace, eye for the target and sense of awareness. He will be brought onto the Offaly senior panel once Clonbullogue's camapign is over and he has that talent. His success will inspire others in Clonbullogue and they have an abundance of talented footballers.

O'Neill and manager Joe Kilmurray (Rhode) both addressed Clonbullogue's reputation for being party animals in the lead up to and aftermath of Saturday's thrilling win over Kilcullen. It may have been a factor in them not making the breakthrough earlier but it is important not to paint all players with the one brush.

It is also important to remember that the culture of the GAA has changed drastically in recent years. For decades into the 1990s, it was an accepted part of the culture for junior and intermediate players in particular, along with some senior ones, to train for their club – and not that hard in some cases – and then imbile a few pints in their local afterwards. That was part of the scene all over the country and Clonbullogue would not have been exceptional in this regard: an era where players were tough on and off the field and being able to drink was wore as a badge of honour. That has changed now.

Clonbullogue's reputation, however, did go far beyond their club borders – they were probably no worse than many areas but they got a reputation. People from other clubs drank with them, saw them in action and it was a case of there being no smoke without fire but they were men for their time – since then Clonbullogue have had some players who didn't have the lifestyle that would be needed to fulfill their footballing potential but they have become an increasing part of the minority and now a different message is going out to the youth of the area.

As Keith O'Neill said on Saturday, underage success with St Broughan's has whetted the appetite of young players in Clonbullogue and they are now hungry for success. As he said, they have enjoyed the taste of success and would rather spend their time on green fields than at social functions.

There is something very likeable about Clonbullogue people. They have some great characters, huge forces of personality and as a community and people, they command respect all over the place. They are decent, good people who wear their hearts on their sleeves, work hard and enjoy life. That plus their scarcity of silverware is why so many people are so glad to see them winning at the moment.

They have plenty of other young players coming up in the coming years and there could be a lot more success for Clonbullogue – as with other big parish underage sides, it is a shame that they are being split up at adult level. It is unlikely that this parish will come together but without that, it is difficult to see a Senior Football Championship title returning to the area and that is a pity.

That, however, won't worry Clonbullogue at the moment. It has really been a magical roller coaster of a journey for them. The quality of football they have played has been breathtaking at times. Thankfully football is moving away from being defence orientated again but Clonbullogue have certainly embraced all out attack and running at sides. They have pace, they have forwards and their spell in the sun is richly deserved.

Trivia corner

This week's answers are:

1 – Name the two Daingean men to receive the Dowling Cup?

Answer – Tommy Greene and Jimmy Kilmurray.

2 – In 1977, Offaly became the first county to achieve this particular feat? What was it?

Answer: Promotion from Division 2 in football and hurling.

3 – How many clubs won the Offaly Senior Hurling Championship in the ten year period, 1985 to 1994?

Answer: 6 – Kinnitty, Coolderry, St Rynagh's, Seir Kieran, Lusmagh and Birr.

This week's questions are:

1 - Name the omly two men who have had the honour of captaining their club to both Offaly senior football and hurling titles?

2 – How many Rhode men have captained their club in senior football final wins over Edenderry?

3 – How many All-Ireland medals has Brian Whelahan won?

Answers in the next column. With thanks to former referee Carthage Buckley for supplying the questions.

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