NAOMH Padraig from Clonbur have been the forgotten team in the AIB GAA football All-Ireland junior club championship – but are delighted that their big day is finally here.
With a disciplinary investigation hanging over the other semi-final, there was a chance that the final may not have taken place – but Naomh Padraig captain Eoin Joyce says they are thrilled to be destined for Croke Park again.
“We couldn’t do anything about it. The GAA have processes to go through and we let them go through it. We are playing Derrytresk in an All-Ireland final and that’s all we are worrying about and are going to give it a rattle and are not going to take notice of anything going on anywhere else,” he says – adding that it’s a title they wanted to win on the field rather than be handed in a committee room.
“You have to win an All-Ireland final on the field. You don’t want the trophy handed to you – you win it on merit. If we deserve to win we’ll win and if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. We want to play in Croke Park.”
The Clonbur side represent a small club on the Galway-Mayo border. A typically rural club, when he came onto the senior team first he got to play alongside his father, but Joyce has seen the club go into decline since then and after winning their way out of junior last year they see the trip to Croker as bonus territory.
“We haven’t fielded at minor or U21 for the last three or four years so it’s magical to be here,” he says.
“When I first started playing I was 16 and played with my father on the team. We were relegated the following year and then contested four intermediate county finals and lost them all and after that things fell away for us and we lost lads through emigration, retirement and so on.
“We ended up playing junior and luckily enough this is only our second year junior and we are out of it. We got caught with first year syndrome and maybe thought we were too good to be where we were and took things for granted – but we got our ship in order this year.
“Everything has been done professionally, as professional as you can when during the week you might have nine or 10 training at home while the rest of us are away. We got it together and got our county title and this is all bonus territory now,” adds Joyce.
For a small club around Connemara emigration is nothing new, but they have noticed its sharper impact in recent years.
“If you look at the team that played in our last intermediate county final five years ago, there has to be at least eight lads gone since then and that’s not retirements, that’s lads in their mid-20s who needed to move for work,” he explains.
“There’s no point harping on – it happens every small village like ourselves on the edge of Connemara and that’s going to happen. You try and develop underage as best you can and get whoever is there just stick together and plough through and luckily we have.
“This year the county board has allowed three Connemara teams amalgamate to play minor and u21 together which will be of serious benefit to us.”
You have to think an All-Ireland title would a serious shot in the arm for their morale too.
Their opponents from Tyrone have been in the spotlight following their semi-final with Dromid, but Derrytresk captain Cathal O’Neill is eager for them to let their football make headlines in the final.
A small club based on the shores of Lough Neagh, their county title was their first in their 108 year history.
Half back O’Neill previously brought back a precious honour to the small club when he was on the Tyrone team that won the 2004 All-Ireland minor crown and his work in captaining Derrytresk to this final has brought him to attention of Tyrone senior manager Mickey Harte.
Other players might have thought about moving to an intermediate or senior club to get noticed – but O’Neill would never leave Derrytresk.
“I would never leave my own club. Where you’re from is where you play for. I have always been very proud of that, no matter what,” he says.
“It’s great to be in Croke Park finally. I got plenty of stick about how bad we were so it’s great to be here finally. We were always a junior club. We played intermediate for a few years but that was through winning the League. We had never won a Championship before last year.
“After that ’04 minor final my mother asked me did I think I’d ever be back in Croke Park as a player and I didn’t see it. I definitely wouldn’t have said I’d be playing for Derrytresk.
“It was great when we won the county. We never thought we’d end up in Croke Park. It was unreal for a small community where everyone knows everybody and you’re related to half the ones in the place,” he adds.
They’ve had a tough road to get here, beating the Derry, Armagh and Kerry champions along the way. And Cathal O’Neill knows there are hundreds of clubs who envy them.
“Once we won Tyrone we said we’d give this a rattle, like everyone else. We played the Derry champions in the first round, Eire Og of Armagh and then Cremartin in the Ulster final. It has been a great journey.
“Normally at this time of year we’re trying to get men off the couch and out of the house for pre-season. It’s great to be out and playing at this time of the year when other teams are only coming back,” he adds.