Wining a County Intermediate Championship in 1997

Tom Towey

The football season of '97 started off like most seasons with a players meeting called in early to mid January by the team manager Michael Rowley to ascertain our playing numbers and set out our goals for the new season ahead. Since winning the Junior Divisional Championship of '92 and opting to upgrade to intermediate football in '93, Michael was manager and myself as trainer we worked very hard with a very young but talented group of up and coming players. The years of '94 and '95 were spent building a team, where a large number of players were used in every line of the team to try and get the right balance.

Progress in 1996

In '96 we were beginning to challenge with more of the experience teams and had settled into a style of our own. In the first round of championship we face the fancied St Pats of Dromard on a beautiful day in Ballymote and after a titanic struggle we emerged victorious by the narrowest of margins. The next round saw us take on the men of Geevagh and after a hard fought encounter we again found ourselves in the winner’s enclosure.

In the semi-final we met our neighbours and great rivals Mullinabreena. After a ding-dong battle we were beaten after a replay. We went on that year to reach the league semi final and lost to Ennisrone who were promoted to Senior that year.

We were making steady progress and felt that we could build on this success. In December 1996, I was appointed Chairman of our club and asked John Brennan to train the team for the coming season; he agreed to return to the fold after a few years out of the fold due to injury. I also asked a number of players with Cloonacool connections to consider joining our club. Pat Hayes who had soldiered for many years with his native club Curry decided to join us as he had lived over the road in Tullivalla. These 2 players had brought strength and experience which was invaluable to our young team as they blended in easily with the rest of the panel in early '97.

Kieran Cup final '97

Our campaign got off to a good start and we found ourselves reaching the Kieran Cup final without really setting out to. In the final we were well and truly beaten by a well drilled Grange/Cliffoney team with Eugene McHale at the helm. The weeks after that defeat were hard to say the least as we could not field a full strength team due to injuries and players studying for exams. As a result the performances in the league were not good and our difficulties were confounded in early May when our manager of the last number of years Michael Rowley tendered his resignation as Intermediate manager.

As we were firmly rooted to the foot of the league table, there was only one way we could go and this we truly did with a mighty effort. As injuries cleared up and all the players became available a new spirit of determination spread through the team. When we faced Cliffoney/Grange in the second round of league in Grange on a fine July Sunday the tension in the dressing room before the game was palpable. As I spoke to the lads of determination and will to win and asked them to remember Ballymote and the Kieran Cup Final defeat was evident on their faces. On that occasion each of the 15 went about their task with the same ruthlessness as a cheetah stalking its prey. We won that day, and that was the turning point of our season and one of the best displays by a Cloonacool fifteen during my eight seasons involved in team management. As win after win followed we reached the league semi-final and lost by the narrowest of margins to a strong Castleconnor team.

Championship of '97

In the meantime the draw for the championship had given us a bye in the first and we prepared for our quarter-final tie with Eastern harps we were apprehensive. Why? Because we had not played them in the league and they were an unknown quantity which meant we could take nothing for granted, It proved to be a tough championship encounter but our greater teamwork and fitness levels saw us comfortably through at the finish.

In the semi-final our opponents were our near neighbours and great rivals, Mullinabreena who had beaten us in championship football in '95 and '96 at semi final stage. This was a big one. We did our homework and did well on a wet Sunday evening in Ballymote after a gigantic struggle for supremacy our young, very fit and hugely talented team laid the ghosts of decades to rest as we triumphed by the narrowest of margins to reach our first ever Intermediate final.

As the team socialised in Brennan's that night our thoughts turned to our final opponents. St Pats and Grange had drawn earlier in the day in the other semi-final. As a few of us watched St Pats emerged victorious in the replay a week later in Kent Park. We done our homework and planned our strategy for the county final day.

As the big day approached the excitement mounted. Flags and bunting flew from every house from Carrentubber to Masshill, from Ballinagrath Bridge to Loughill, from Clooneen to Ballyglass. “Could we do it” was the question on everyone's lips. Great footballers from the past could be seen in groups talking in hushed tones as recently converted “supporters” asked them for their considered opinion of our chances against one of the best clubs in the county, St Pats of Dromard and Skreen.

The Final

The 14 of September 1997 was one of the longest days of my life. The final was not due to start until 6p.m in the evening. Schoolboys training in the morning, a fitness test on John Brennan's suspected ankle injured in training, and the All-Ireland hurling final helped to ease the tension and pass the time. As we gathered in Brennan's street the mood was upbeat and confident. The team was nice and relaxed. There was the threat of rain. “Has every gloves? Has every one a pass? Have we enough water and ice?” - a thousand and one things to think of, and then off to Markievicz Park.

As we togged the tension began to rise. This was it. I named the team chosen by myself, Bill Carty and John Brennan in our usual corner in Brennan's Lounge. As each player received his jersey and sat in a pensive mood, I came to the middle of the floor to address them for the last time. I asked them to enjoy the occasion, to wear the jersey with pride and to remember the great players of the past who had never played in a county final. Some no longer with us like Jim (Tommy) Gallagher and the mighty Myles McIntyer who would go through a steel wall for the team and often did. I asked them to win it for those great players of the past. The rest is history now. The game passed quickly, from once Bill Carty goaled and John Brennan brought off a magnificent save I knew we'd win it as the whole team played with fire bellies. I watched the closing stages, my heart beating with pride as our magnificent supporters roared on their heroes.

1997 Intermediate Champions

The Celebrations

When Marty Duffy's whistle sounded to end the contest the scenes of jubilation and sheer joy was a sight to behold. The players were hugged kissed and carried shoulder high around the pitch. The amount of grown men who shook my hand with tears of joy in their eyes was unbelievable. After decades of trying we had became county champions at last. When chairman of the County Board Joe Queenan of Enniscrone, presented the Joe McMorrow Cup to our magnificent captain Michael Cully. The roars of approval could be heard all the way back to the deserted village. The homecomming was a sight to behold. As darkness fell, the cavalcade of cars behind me coming up the Sligo road stretched as far as the eye could see. As we approached home bonfires blazed, car horns honked, amber and blue flags everywhere, roars of approval, crowds waving at every crossroads as we did the loop and during all of the celebrations a mighty thirst developed as we approached the village. The crowd that gathered to greet the newly crowned Intermediate champions vented their approval as hats, caps and scarves took to the air.

After all the years of hard work success at last. A marvellous feeling of satisfaction and fulfilment. As a manager of this team that had won a county championship and played senior league in '98, I want to take this opportuntity to thank all the lads for their co-operation and dedication over the years and wish them well in the future.