NINETY minutes is all that separates the Kilkenny & District League Youths from ending 27 barren years.
The Cats, under manager Ronnie Grace, will tackle the Cork League this Sunday with All-Ireland glory on their minds.
Kilkenny have just one title to their name at this level, which was won back in season 1983/84. The wait to their last appearance in the final is almost as long - 1990, when current squad member Chris Valentine’s father John featured for the Cats - has been mentioned, but the class of 2011 are looking to make their own bit of history.
“The lads know all about 1984 and 1990, but we won’t dwell on that too much,” Grace told the ’People. “I’m a great believer that the wheel always turns. The lads have the ability to win this game; they have trained well and shown great commitment all season. Cork will be favourites, especially after beating the DDSL in the semi-final, but we’ll be ready for the big challenge ahead.”
It’s been a long road since that opening game against West Waterford/East Cork, but the manager has been quietly confident that his side could go on to great things.
“I always felt that we had a formidable squad, but it was after the Waterford game that I felt there was something special there,” he said. “It has been the same throughout the group stage and the knockout rounds. The lads have stepped up to the mark with each challenge and are in the final on merit.”
Kilkenny beat West Waterford/East Cork 4-1 in their first group game in November, opening their account with a Martin Doyle goal in Cappoquin. Although the hosts equalised, three more strikes from Chris Valentine, Sean Maguire and Ross King had the Cats up and running.
They then showed their battling qualities to see off Waterford. Despite going a goal down in Ozier Park, Kilkenny changed tactics, pushing an extra man up top as they fought their way back into the game. Four goals from Mark Lyons, Sean Maguire, Andy Hickey and Nigel Keogh in just 15 minutes stunned the Munster side and turned defeat into a 4-1 win.
Kilkenny wrapped up the group stages with another important win, this time against South Tipp in Clonmel. Ross King grabbed an injury-time goal that gave the Cats a 2-1 win after skipper Declan McQuillan’s early goal had been cancelled out by the TSDL.
The Youths played all of their group games away, but Kilkenny have enjoyed home advantage ever since. Martin Doyle grabbed the winner in the last 16 tie against the Donegal League, pouncing in extra-time to join club colleague Conor Gorey on the scoresheet.
The quarter-finals, which were also played at Scanlon Park, saw Kilkenny lock horns with local rivals Wexford in March. Sean Maguire was the hero here, grabbing a stunning 86th minute winner as Mick Wallace’s side had cancelled out Ross King’s early goal.
The semi-finals brought the Clare League to Derdimus. The visitors didn’t get the best of starts, conceding two quick goals to King and Kilkenny, but they did fight back to 2-2. The hosts were back on the front foot in the second half, dominating the game until King completed his hat-trick and booked the team’s place in the final.
With the final just days away, Grace has been boosted by the news of a panel who are in good form.
“All the lads are ready for Sunday,” he said. “We’ve even been helped by the return of Mark Lyons from injury, which will give us a nice selection headache. He has recovered well following surgery on a long-term wrist injury - he broke his wrist two years ago and it never set properly. Since returning to fitness I’ve seen him play a few games; he has lost none of the intensity he brings to his game and will be a huge asset.”
Lyons is just one of the many players at Grace’s disposal who can seamlessly slot in where required.
“They are a very versatile bunch of players,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the final more for them than as a manager. To get here is a fabulous job, but no-one wants to just appear in a final; you have to drive on. We’ll look to make a good start to Sunday’s game and settle in - after that, who knows?”
The Kilkenny & District League Youths v Cork League final will be played in Castlecomer on Easter Sunday. Kick-off is at 3pm. Admission to the game is E8.
Martin Doyle (18). Club: Freebooters. Position: Right wing.
Nigel Keogh (18). Club: Highview Athletic. Position: Centre-forward.
Jason Mahony (16). Club: Evergreen. Position: Goalkeeper.
Craig Cummins (17). Club: Evergreen. Position: Goalkeeper.
Barry Whelan (16). Club: Thomastown United. Position: Right full-back.
Lee Delaney (17). Club: Evergreen. Position: Centre midfield.
Sammy Johnson (18). Club: Evergreen. Position: Centre-half.
Andy Hickey (16). Club: Evergreen. Position: Left full-back.
Decky McQuillan (17, captain). Club: Evergreen. Position: Centre midfield.
Conor Gorey (18). Club: Freebooters. Position: Left wing.
Ross King (17). Club: Evergreen. Position: Centre-forward.
Sean Maguire (16). Club: Evergreen. Position: Centre-forward.
Enda Purcell (17). Club: Freshford Town. Position: Centre-forward.
Jack Deegan (18). Club: Freebooters. Position: Right full-back.
Mark Lyons (17). Club: Evergreen. Position: Right full-back.
Robert Skehan (18). Club: Thomastown United. Position: Centre-half.
Ian McLoughlin (18). Club: Callan United. Position: Centre-forward.
Nathan West (16). Club: Bridge United. Position: Right wing.
Peter Shaw (16). Club: Bridge United. Position: Centre midfield.
Chris Valentine (18). Club: Freebooters. Position: Right wing.
Manager: Ronnie Grace. Goalkeeping coach: Peter Murtagh. Medical officer: George Culliton.