Henry O'Neill has been a leading light for the Kilkenny & District League's Oscar Traynor Trophy team this season PICTURE: MICHAEL BROPHY
It’s been more like a round trip rather than a straightforward journey, but the Kilkenny & District League’s Oscar Traynor team have one more stop to make on the road to redemption.
The Cats can erase the pain of last year’s final defeat, but know they face a big test to knock a dangerous Limerick District side off their stride.
For Kilkenny that 1-0 loss to Carlow in Derdimus still burns deeply, but that defeat has been a driving force as they fought their way back to Sunday’s final (kick-off in Derdimus is at 1pm).
It’s hard to believe it’s 17 years since the League has climbed to the top of the inter-league ladder, but under Jim Nugent and Jim Cashin the roots of recovery have flourished and brought a good yield.
The big question was whether the hurt of losing the 2018 final would spur the team on this season. Kilkenny delivered an emphatic answer, handing Wicklow a 6-2 walloping in their opening game in October.
Mark Slater capped his first performance for the team with a fine hat-trick, with Peter Higgins adding a fourth.
Wicklow upset the good run when they pulled two goals back in quick succession, but a Dean Broaders penalty and a late goal from Henry O’Neill completed the emphatic win.
“It was so important to make a winning start as it set the tone for the rest of the competition,” remarked joint manager Jim Cashin after the game.
“The message was the same as before the opening game last year - win well and that gives you momentum for the rest of the campaign.”
That charge was checked somewhat after Kilkenny travelled to Dublin for their second group game, but came home empty-handed after a 3-2 loss to the AUL.
The home side left Kilkenny heads spinning when they capitalised on a poor start from the Cats to take a 2-0 lead.
The visitors rallied, Henry O’Neill levelling matters with a brace, but the double whammy of a deflected Wayne Walker goal and red card for Paddy Cahill did for their comeback hopes.
The addition of the experienced Davy Mulcahy has been a real boost to the Kilkenny & District League's Oscar Traynor squad PICTURE: Michael Brophy
The result was a real test of Kilkenny’s character, but how they responded. Needing to beat Wexford in their last group game they came through a real battle to make the quarter-finals.
Henry O’Neill’s goal sealed the win, but it was the manner of their victory which impressed the most.
Kilkenny were resolute, despite some strong Wexford opposition, and decisive too - with the game scoreless they switched things up, going with three at the back as they pushed for the winner.
Kilkenny’s fearlessness when it came to trying new approaches shone again in the knockout stages. The loss of Paddy Cahill, Owen McCormack and Emmet Nugent to Wexford and a number of injuries meant managers Jim Nugent and Cashin were forced to mix things up for the quarter-final away to the Defence Forces.
The changes didn’t alter the squad’s focus, as the new recruits played their part to perfection. Neil O’Mara, Joe Banville and Dylan Dunphy-Wallace were among the stars as Kilkenny beat the Forces 2-1, Peter Higgins grabbing the winner after Henry O’Neill’s opener.
Newpark striker O’Neill has been a leading light for the Cats this season and saved his best performance for the semi-final, his tireless work and non-stop running proving vital in an epic battle.
The game against Galway was tough - there was added pressure as the winners knew they would have home advantage for the final - but Kilkenny’s task became even greater after Paul Sinnott gave Galway a first half lead.
Again, Kilkenny raised their game. Ben Hickey led the charge, hitting the equaliser before O’Mara was sprang from the bench to power home an unstoppable header from O’Neill’s wicked corner.
Kilkenny, who have added Sean Barcoe to the matchday squad for the decider, achieved their mission of getting back to the final but they know it won’t be easy to go one step further. Limerick, who are represented by Janesboro, beat the Leinster Senior League 3-2, keeping their hopes of a first title since 1996 alive. Niall Hanley, Thomas Clarke and Keith Mawdsley impressed for the winners, who also top the Premier Division table in Limerick.
A big challenge lies ahead - but the Cats will be ready for action!