Castlehaven still managing to bring it all back home in defiance of the odds
People leave but the players still return to play for the west Cork side, writes KEITH DUGGAN
Castlehaven will never be known as a “super-club” and if only the players living in the village showed up for training, manager James McCarthy would have to devise drills for five. It is the oldest west of Ireland story: people leave because they cannot stay. In one of the two local schools, the enrolment book for new boys contained just one fresh name.
There are no more than 1,200 people in the parish and yet somehow, the west Cork men have navigated a path back to their fourth Munster final in just over 20 years
Castlehaven are one of the great, quiet stories of the GAA. There is something beyond logic and romance which compels men like Mick Maguire, the former Cork goalkeeper, to drive his sons on 60 mile each-way trips just so they can train with the Castlehaven under-14 and under-16 teams respectively.
“It’s hard to explain it when you are in the middle of it,” says McCarthy.
“It is kind of a natural thing . . . we expect fellas who grew up here to come back and to bring their kids along to play with the club. I suppose the main reason is the spirit in the parish. At the start of the year we wouldn’t bring the city lads down but from the start of the championship, they have all been down here twice a week.”
Journey from London
Two of the Cahalane boys have been making the journey from London to play with the team. The easier option – transferring – is rarely considered.
The magical thing for Castlehaven is that they can’t quite identify why they care about the local team so much. There is little doubt that their first county title in 1989, when they became the very first rural club in Cork to make the grade, has given subsequent teams a sense of tradition to maintain. And this is fishing territory: rising tides and all that.
Skibbereen, neighbours and fierce rivals during decades when nobody else paid much heed to what either club got up to, weren’t long getting in on the act. They duly claimed a county championship in 1992 and went on to win the club All-Ireland the following March.
So when the clubs clashed in the final of the 1994 Cork championship, the gorgeous west suddenly appeared to be the improbable epicentre of football. Twenty thousand people showed up to see the teams play out a draw. Twenty three thousand showed up for the replay with Albert Reynolds, who was taoiseach at the time, among their number.
“I was still in the panel then,” says McCarthy, who describes his playing life as one of those who “held onto Larry Tompkins’s shoestrings”.
“I don’t think you will ever see days like those again. It was an intense rivalry because of where both clubs had come from in the previous few years. But the enthusiasm from the teams and the supporters was something else.
Shane Nolan was the team mascot in 1994 – his father Jim was a Castlehaven “lifer”. Last year, Nolan transferred from Valley Rovers back to his childhood club in Castlehaven, joining the numbers who fled the bright lights of Cork city for the twice-weekly training ritual. And Nolan wasn’t a guaranteed starter either.
He came on as a substitute in the county final against Duhallow when Castlehaven trailed by two points with time ebbing. Castlehaven had lost the previous year’s final and another black end to the Cork championship looked inevitable. Then, a hopeful punt for a point, the ball dropping short and Nolan coming from nowhere to get his fist to the ball: it was the winning goal.
And it was also irrefutable proof that this experiment of localised repatriation was worth it.
Somehow, Castlehaven find enough players to keep putting out decent teams. McCarthy has coached at all levels over the years and instances an occasion when they took Nemo, the perennial Cork giants, to a replay in a quarter final. They lost the match and afterwards a few players retired.
“But then we won two county under-21 titles. And we still have five or six players from the Castlehaven team that won the county championship in 2003. To win two county medals over a nine-year span is a fair thing for a country team.”
It’s a constant struggle against the natural patterns and rhythms of a small community. West Cork is known for its bewitching natural beauty but unless a young man has a mind to make it as a landscape artist, work options can be thin on the ground. Emigration would be a threat for the club except for one thing.
“Several lads have put their lives on hold for football,” McCarthy says. “It is that simple. But they can’t keep doing that forever. We will lose some. That’s inevitable.”
So tomorrow, they will make the best of the day. The bookmakers rank them as 3 to 1 outsiders in their quest to stop the juggernaut that Dr Crokes has become.
The football man in McCarthy is keenly aware that the general consensus is that this year’s club championship is gradually being distilled to what would be a monumental clash between the Killarney men and the extraordinary Crossmaglen team.
Castlehaven, though, have built their tradition upon consistent defiance of the odds.
Sometimes people ask McCarthy what he is going to do about the Gooch. But Colm Cooper, for all his brilliance, is just one of many problems that Dr Crokes pose.
“There are five other really strong players in that forward line alone. We know we are playing one of the top two teams in Ireland and what we have to do. It is every man for himself.”
Except that in Castlehaven, it is anything but.