KILLINAN END - Defying the odds

Club Championships throw up many remarkable features from time to time which appear to defy the odds.

Some 30 years ago, back in 1992, Éire Óg of Carlow achieved the unimaginable and won the Leinster club football championship. Carlow has never been a bastion of football success. They had their moments fielding decent teams in the 1940s and ‘50s, winning the Leinster Senior championship in 1944, and reaching a League Final nine years later. By no means, however, was the county ever long in any conversation that might involve potential winners of a major championship. This makes the achievement of Éire Óg all the more remarkable.

It is true of course that the club scene does not always follow its inter-county counterpart in how power is distributed. As recently as 2018, Mullinalaghta bucked all expectations when winning the Leinster football championship yet at inter-county Longford, though often competitive, lack the playing resources to hit those heights. Like Carlow they had their day in the sun back in 1968 when they won the Leinster championship. Like Carlow almost a quarter of a century earlier they too endured a narrow defeat to Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. But their place in the pecking order is rigid.

The pantheon of Leinster club winners down the years includes - as well as a host of Dublin clubs of course - Portlaoise, Summerhill and Walterstown of Meath, Moorefield of Kildare, Ferbane and Walsh Island of Offaly. All are from counties that were going well or had the potential to go well when these clubs were achieving. Rathnew and Baltinglass were coming from a slightly different context when they won the provincial championship in 1989 and 2001 respectively, as were Carlow’s O’Hanrahan’s in 2000. These were the classic shock wins by teams from unglamorous, unheralded, and unsuccessful counties.

What makes Éire Óg stand out in the Leinster club championship Is not just that they were from a county which does not hog the limelight, but that theirs was not a single smash-and-grab win. This was not a one-off 1-7 to 0-9 type win in a battle of attrition. This was a club which dominated Leinster football. A club which won five titles in seven years and in doing so played the Dublin champions five times in the final (two were replays) without losing a single one. If we assume that even back then during the 1990s the Dublin champions were the expected benchmark it creates a case for Éire Óg as one of the great club football campaigners.

They are not half bad in Carlow either as you’d imagine. The club is based in Carlow town and was formed as recently as 1956 in a town which already had the O’Hanrahan’s club. Éire Óg was created on new territory. The modern O’Hanrahan’s was already an amalgamation of O’Hanrahan’s and another local club called Shamrocks. These clubs came up with the intriguing compromise on amalgamation of keeping the name of O’Hanrahan’s (named after Michael O’Hanrahan who was executed in 1916) and the colours of Shamrocks. Though not directly challenging their fellow town team geographically they certainly threw down the gauntlet fairly quickly on the pitch. In 1958, O’Hanrahan’s were County Senior football champions for the thirteenth time – a joint record back in those days. Since then, the club has won just five more – the 1970s and ‘80s were barren decades – which while respectable is modest for a club with their back-catalogue.

That same year, 1958, saw the newly-minted Éire Óg win a County Junior title. Their arrival in Senior ranks was the greatest earthquake in the history of Carlow club football. Since their first Senior title in 1960 they have added nearly thirty more and counting. It is remarkable given the nature of club championship where strong teams can become very dominant that these successes have seen just two three-in-a-rows, and it took the 1990s team to go beyond that when they won five in succession. Who would have realised when they beat Tinryland in the 1992 Carlow final what was ahead? The next seven years brought six Carlow titles, but it was further afield that the nation’s attention was captured. When Kilmacud Crokes won their maiden County Senior football title the same year, as with many Dublin champions, they were favourites for Leinster. Their Waterloo came in the unlikely form of Ballyroan of Laois, still in the throes of celebrating a first County title in 42 years, but good enough to dash the hopes of Kilmacud who would wait until 1995 for an All-Ireland title.

When Éire Óg beat Ballyroan in the Leinster Final of 1992 there was a view that they had dodged a bullet and won without necessarily beating the ‘best’ team. To Éire Óg’s credit they answered that, winning again and again in the province over the following six years, including prevailing after a three-game marathon against Kilmacud Crokes in the 1998 final. The one regret they will take to the grave is the failure to add an All-Ireland title with a narrow replay defeat against O’Donovan Rossa of Skibbereen a bitter pill. They will not celebrate the thirtieth anniversary by starting it all again as they exited the Carlow championship last weekend against Rathvilly. But in a modern environment where the occasional unseating of super-clubs is as remarkable as it gets, the legacy of their 1990s team stands the test of time.