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Charleville's chance for All-Ireland glory

Wednesday, 6th February, 2019 4:55pm

Seven years ago Charleville made the journey to Croke Park to play in the All-Ireland Junior Hurling Final. On that occasion in 2012, the North Cork outfit lost out to St Patrick’s Ballyragget by the narrowest of margins, one point, a forgettable finish to an unforgettable year.

For Charleville to have got to one All-Ireland Final was a once-in a lifetime moment, you’d be forgiven for thinking, so to be back in Croke Park again just seven years later? That’s when you know there’s a lot more to this special club then meets the eye.

Darragh Fitzgibbon was just 14 when Charleville lost that final seven years ago and now the 21 year old All-Star is setting out to overcome that one point loss and to bring that much-wanted cup back to his hometown. Reflecting on the season so far at club level, Fitzgibbon concedes his barely had time to reflect on a manic few months between club and county.

“Yeah, I suppose it’s been a great year so far. Going from Cork back into Charleville straight away I haven’t really had much time to look back on things. It kind of just kept on going, but it’s great to be looking forward to an All-Ireland Final with your club. It’s something that you couldn’t have imagined a couple of years ago and to be up here now is just unbelievable.

“Growing up, we were only playing at junior level and I suppose we were looking at local clubs playing senior and they were having unbelievable success. It’s the players that are getting the credit but the structures were put in place for us growing up; we were hurling at the top-level from underage the whole way up and that was because of the work being going on in the background. To get to where we are is all down to the structures that were put in place for us.”

The club enjoying unbelievable success, of course, was Newtownshandrum, located just out the road from Charleville. The club made it all the way to two senior club finals, winning one in 2004 and losing another in 2006. At the forefront of that team were the O’Connor twins, Ben and Jerry, as famed across Cork and Ireland as the ice-cream is across the globe.

The duo were two of the best hurlers in the country in that 2004-2006 period, with Ben captaining Cork to All-Ireland success in 2004 just months after his win with Newtownshandrum. Leaving his playing days behind him since, Ben is a now a coach with Charleville and the significance of his impact at the club isn’t lost on Fitzgibbon.

“When we were growing up, Ben and Jerry were winning All-Irelands with Cork and Newtownshandrum; they were idols to us with all the success they had and for him to come out and train us, it’s kind of an honour to play for him. They really are at the top-level, I think Ben and Jerry won every award you can win in hurling.

“The success we’ve had is a testament to the work put in by management and the players themselves because it was a disappointing season. We met last November (2017) and we got going in the gym and said that we were going to try and make it better, but no-one knew we’d make it this far, but it’s been a fantastic journey this year.”

As Fitzgibbon already mentioned, the groundwork for this season was put in long before Charleville were winning county and Munster cups – the underage structure in the club has played a large part in the club’s run with eight under 21 players on the starting 15.

“We are under no illusions that senior hurling is going to be a different level again and I suppose it’ll take us time to adjust to that as well. But it’s a bright future, it’s the highest level we’ve been playing at for 50 years, it’s all looking good,” says Fitzgibbon.

Standing in the way on Sunday is Galway’s Oranmore-Maree who have a couple of specially sharpened swords to bring to the battle on Sunday in the form of intercounty stars Gearoid McInerney and Niall Burke. The duo are no strangers to big-match experience and Fitzgibbon and his side are well aware of the threat the pair pose.

“We’ve seen a few video clips, but I suppose you don’t really know much about teams or counties outside of Cork, but we’ve a had few weeks to prepare for them. Look, they have Gearoid McInerney and Niall Burke, two huge players who’ve won (All-Irelands) and played at the top-level.

“We’re under no illusions, it’s an All-Ireland final, it’s going be tough, but we are just looking forward to it. McInerney is a fantastic player, hurling centre-back for Galway and winning an All-Ireland, he probably could have been player of the year in 2017, we know how good he is, but we have to concentrate on all 15 players.”

Fitzgibbon himself has burst on to the intercounty scene, winning two Munster titles since his debut in 2017, while he was the only player aged 21 or under to be named on the All-Star team last October. Although he has just two seasons under his belt, the UCC student has become paramount to Cork hopes of winning the Liam McCarthy for the first time since 2005.

“In Cork you are judged on how many All-Irelands you’ve won. Look, there is nothing between any team in the All-Ireland series. We were up by six points in an All-Ireland semi-final against the eventual champions, like. So the margins are fine.

“I think a puck of a ball in this year’s championship could change the direction. Last year could easily have been a Cork and Clare final, but it wasn’t to be. It was Limerick and fair play to them - and Galway as well for getting to the final. But we are going to train hard this year, try to improve and we’ll see where it goes.

“It’s been kind of surreal really, I wasn’t really expecting to play against Tipperary two seasons ago. To be out in Thurles that Sunday, the Cork crowd was massive and the way the result went, the Cork crowd coming into you after, everybody was delighted after the disappointment of 2016.

“To play with the likes of Patrick Horgan, Anthony Nash, Conor Lehane and Seamus Harnedy is unbelievable. It was unbelievable to be nominated for Young Player of the Year and to pick up an All-Star. Winning the All-Star, I had to go out and play Lixnaw the next day in the Munster semi-final so I haven’t really got a chance to look back!”

But for now, Fitzgibbon’s focus is firmly on Sunday: “An All-Ireland final with your club in Croke Park is amazing. For a small club like Charleville, you never thought you would get this far. We are not getting carried away but the town is buzzing. It’s great for the kids as well. When I was growing up, I was looking at a junior club, now the kids are going to be coming into a senior club and they get to come to Croke Park and support Charleville - that is just amazing.”

Charleville and Oranmore-Maree will contest the AIB Intermediate Hurling Club Final on Sunday 10 March. Throw-in is at 3.15pm.

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