"If your feet are in the past, you haven't a leg to stand on in the present," said Ardnaree manager Declan O'Dea this week, when speaking to the Mayo Advertiser about his side's upcoming junior championship semi-final against fellow north Mayo men Ardagh. O'Dea is back in charge of Ardnaree this year after a few years' sabbatical from the post. Ardnaree haven't won the junior championship since 1971 and bringing the Pete McDonnell Cup back to home is something that has gone on too long for all those concerned. Ardnaree have lost three finals in recent times going down in the 2009, 2011 and 2012 deciders, and they're back this year for another crack at glory.
In their quarter-final win over neighbours Ballina Stephenites B, there was very little standing room in the old stand in Knockmore, where Ardnaree turned on the style in awful conditions to run out 1-16 to 0-4 winners. "We played pretty well and there is a good unity in the group, but we're facing into a very tough game on Sunday. But those lads in Ardagh have made great progress over the last few years and they were in the semi-final last year and they knocked us out of the championship last year in the group stages," said O'Dea.
Ardagh have come on leaps and bounds over the last few years and O'Dea knows it's going to be a difficult task to see off their opponents. "We respect them very much, it's a north Mayo junior derby and it's going to be what happens on the day. They've a very good young team with some very good footballers and they are a team on the up, there's no doubt about that, and we'll have to be at our very best to beat them."
In the championship Ardnaree have been hitting some very good scores, but with a place in the final up for grabs in James Stephens Park on Sunday, the Ardnaree supremo reckons that it's going to be a lot tighter this time around. "We scored freely right through the championship, but when it comes to this stage now, it's knock-out and there's a place in the final at stake and I wouldn't expect a high scoring game myself, it'll be a tough game."
The future is unwritten
As for past defeats being something for his charges to draw on and learn from, O'Dea says that what's gone is gone and it's all about what they can do now in the present. "I stepped down for two years and I wasn't involved, I wasn't around the scene for two seasons nearly. What we're doing now is that we're concentrating on the present, if your feet are in the past, you haven't a leg to stand on in the present and we're just concentrating on this and mindful of the fact we're in a semi-final on Sunday. We haven't talked about the things we've lost, we're only just where we are today and hopefully we can beat Ardagh on Sunday."
After a couple of years out, and a defeat against Ardagh in the group stages last year killing off their hopes of claiming the McDonnell cup, we asked O'Dea was that a motivation that they were using? "They were beaten by Ardagh in the group stages in 2014 and that looked like it might be the end of this group of players. But I have to say the previous management were savaged with injuries in 2014, there was a big injury thing in the camp, and there was bad press given to the management last year, but it was a lot of it out of their control. Another thing is that due credit has to be given to the last management team, they got that team promoted through division 1c to division 1b, they did a good job. I think the management didn't have a full deck to pick from. So for me when I came back it wasn't about picking people up, it was a lot of the injuries had cleared up; Conor Naylor, Conor Cawley and Eoin McCormack, important players like that who had missed a lot of time were back. It was question of you're a junior player in a junior club, what do you try and win, and it's the junior championship in any given year. When I came back the good thing was that they had stayed in division 1b of the league, that's a great achievement in itself, this year we've won two or three games in that league and we've been beaten three or four times, we've never been whipped by any team in that league."
While the league has given Ardnaree some good practice, it's nothing compared to the cut and thrust of championship action, O'Dea says, and that's where football really comes alive in the county he believes. "To a degree it is, some of those league games wouldn't have the intensity of the championship and I know that might sound a bit contradictionary, but the championship football in Mayo is unique. Whether it's senior, intermediate or junior, it's contested honestly and teams prepare well for it and I think that's what has given Mayo such strong clubs and preformances in the provincial competitions over the years at all levels."
As for their opponents on Sunday, there's been plenty for Ardnaree to look at and know they are in a serious game, says O'Dea. "They've a great crowd supporting them, no more than ourselves. They've done great things this year, we've the utmost respect for them and we know they've a good set of players and they've added players from last year, some really good players to what they had. James Carr has turned into a fine footballer and is getting better and he along with Joe and Brendan Carr are a really strong spine of the team. A semi-final is a 50/50 game, they'll be as confident of winning it as we are and we wouldn't be looking at these guys as any pushovers because they're in a league below us, that's all gone out the window. We respect these guys hugely."
One other thing that O'Dea is glad about is that the game has been fixed for James Stephens Park, which will add some extra spice and make sure that a big crowd of interested spectators will come along for a classic north Mayo junior tie. "We're delighted that the county board have got the game fixed for Ballina, it's a lovely surface and a lovely pitch. It's a long pitch, and has the same dimensions as MacHale Park so whoever wins will have got used to playing on a pitch like that. There will be a big crowd at it too. There was a massive crowd at the quarter-final against Ballina in Knockmore, for a junior game it was great."