THE WAIT IS over - the Kilkenny & District League squad are fully charged for their crack at Kennedy Cup glory, writes Trevor Spillane.
The Cats rounded off their warm-up for the prestigious competition, which kicks off at the University of Limerick on Monday, in style by beating North Tipperary 2-0 at Derdimus on Sunday morning. The game marked the end of a busy period for the squad, and their manager Gary Maher.
“We’ve been training almost every Monday evening since September,” he told the People. “We’ve also had matches the odd Sunday, but numbers have been high no matter the weather - hail, rain or snow. Even over Christmas we played matches and trained with only the odd week off here and there.”
The long hours have paid off. Sunday’s sparkling display against Tipp, who won the All-Ireland at under-12 level last season (they beat a Waterford side who saw off Kilkenny 2-0 at the semi-final stage), was the last in a series of friendly games the Cats have played in recent months.
“We have played friendlies against Tipp Southern & District League, North Tipp, Kildare, Carlow and the Midlands League since March,” said Maher. “We played a few games before Christmas as well, but preparations have gone well for us in recent months.”
The proof is in the display. Kilkenny boast a tight-knit squad, a side who are familiar with each other’s style of play.
“The lads all know each other very well and each other’s game,” Maher agreed. “When we took over the team at under-10 level we had about 30 lads in the initial squad, but that was only after looking at practically every player in the county. It was a long search, but we had a good idea which lads were out there.
“Half of the squad - including the likes of Aidan O’Sullivan, Peter Henebry, Chris Nolan, Craig Hayes and Dean George - have been with me since the start,” he said. “It’s more or less the same panel as the one that got to the under-12 All-Ireland semi-finals last year. We have made a few additions - Adam Power (Thomastown United), Christian Lapuste (Freebooters), Colin Dempsey (Evergreen) and Marc Drennan (Paulstown 06). The nucleus of the squad has been together since they were under-10.”
For Maher, the hard work has been worth it - for manager and players alike.
“We’re delighted with the squad and the way it worked out,” he said. “We have 20 lads who are capable of starting any match. They are excellent players, all technically gifted footballers. We just need to use the squad wisely when we get to Limerick to make sure we’re not burning lads out. It’s impossible for lads to play every minute of every game.”
This is where the key to Kennedy Cup success lies. Three group games in quick period means clever use of squad rotation can be half the battle.
“We have North East Counties on Monday evening at 5pm, then we’re out at 10.30am on Tuesday before our last group game at 5pm,” said Maher. “Squad rotation is going to be massive - it’s impossible to expect one player to play three games in 24 hours.
“The time limit in matches has been stepped up from half an hour to 35 minutes a side,” he added. “If you were to add up all those additional five minutes that’s an extra match over the space of the week. This year more than even we’ll have to use our players wisely.”
Kilkenny will be hoping to do as well, if not better, than last year. In 2011 the squad, then under the stewardship of Mick Manley and Mark Brennan, scored a top eight result. In Kilkenny’s best finish for a number of years, the Cats made a mockery of their fourth place seeding by drawing 0-0 with Donegal before topping the group thanks to victories over Kildare (1-0) and Limerick County (2-0).
Pitted in Group Three this year, Kilkenny will play the North East Counties on Monday evening. Their two games on Tuesday are the Midlands League and Drogheda, but Maher isn’t looking too far ahead at the schedule.
“I don’t know what order the other two games are in,” he said. “We haven’t looked beyond the North East Counties - that’s the match we’re aiming towards. We’re looking forward to that game.”
That anticipation is coursing through the players as well.
“All the lads are very excited about going to Limerick,” he said. “As the date is getting closer the anticipation is building. They got new gear, such as sponsored bags from the Hibernian, so they’re mad to get going.”
Maher will be assisted by Kevin O’Neill in Limerick, with Johnny Maclean also on board for the tournament.
“It’s great to have Johnny there for his extra experience alone,” the manager said. “He’s been there before and knows what it takes to do well in the competition. It’s great to have him there to help the side. Hopefully we’ll have a really good week.”
The squad will have their last training session before the tournament tomorrow (Thursday) at 5.4pm in Derdimus.
Kilkenny & District League Kennedy Cup squad: Chris Nolan, Gary Lawlor (Bridge United); Colin Dempsey, Eoin McCormack, Dara Keane (captain), Peter Henebry, Aidan O’Sullivan, Emmet Coakley (Evergreen); Stephen Scallon, Joe Banville, Chris Phelan, Edward Moylan, Dean George, Christian Lapuste, Craig Hayes, Sean Bolger (Freebooters); Marc Drennan, Shane Flavin (Paulstown 06); Adam Power, Shane Hanley (Thomastown United).