Rovers’ road takes them from brink of Junior B to Croker

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There are somewhere over 2,200 GAA clubs in Ireland so the chances of one from any given corner of the country making it to one of the All-Ireland finals being decided in Croke Park in the same weekend are, well, long.

As for the odds of two from one neck of the woods managing it…

You wouldn’t use more than eight miles of petrol by driving between the pitches of Russell Rovers and Fr O’Neill’s in East Cork.

Where the ‘border’ lies between them isn’t all that clear but the Garryvoe Hotel is their Checkpoint Charlie.

Truth is there is more entangling them than keeping them apart.

Brian ‘Bud’ Hartnett, who lines out for Rovers in tomorrow’s Junior decider, is a case in point.

His girlfriend’s brother, Paudie McMahon, will feature in the Intermediate decider for O’Neill’s.

Hartnett’s own brother is married to a woman from the ‘opposite’ side of the same fence.

All told, there is talk of 5,000 people spilling out of the area and up to Croke Park.

“They would generally be very good for supporting us and, with the gaps between the grades, we’ve never really played each other so there’s not too much rivalry or animosity,” Hartnett explained.

“There’s more goodwill, especially sharing the hotel and stuff like that.”

This isn’t a road the Rovers crowd ever expected to take.

They only won a first East Cork divisional title two years ago but retained that this term and then took the county crown and the Munster version after that.

“Before that, five or six years ago, we definitely would have been seen as the whipping boys of East Cork.”

That’s no exaggeration. Matters got so bad that there were words spoken in favour of a drop back to Junior B.

The dissenting voices came from the playing ranks, people like Jonathan Walsh, Kieran Ivers, and Paul Lane who were still pulling on the jersey and now hold key roles on the committee.

This injection of new blood in the boardroom was echoed, and in a way, prompted by a similar influx on the pitch.

Rovers are joined at the hip with St Colman’s, Cloyne at underage and a large clump of the team that plays this weekend graduated from a successful underage setup coached by Dónal Óg Cusack.

Rovers’ road takes them from brink of Junior B to Croker

Hartnett describes this rump as the “backbone” of the team now, the professional approach they assimilated with Cloyne and the experience of winning a Premier Minor county title having seeped back into the Rovers setup.

“Aside from the players then we would have pulled a few rabbits out of the hat in terms of coaches,” Hartnett added.

“Frank Flannery would have been down with us this year. Phenomenal coach, really set hard work into us. He made that our priority.

“He got us fit first of all and put a bit of steel into us, gave us that winning mentality.

“Noel Furlong is down coaching us as well. Noel is going to be the Cork minor manager in 2021. So the level of coaching we have been getting has been top class.”

The improvements on and off the pitch were obvious to everyone but no-one saw it producing a chapter that will be written in Croke Park, least of all Hartnett who felt that his chances of gracing the turf there had long since passed.

A former minor and U21 with Cork, he had been a member of the extended senior panel when they lost an All-Ireland final replay to Clare in 2013.

That, he thought, was as close as he would get to emulating his brother Kevin who won a minor medal at the ground in 2001.

Kevin Hartnett has flown back from Austin, Texas to take in the big day.

After all, what are the chances of this ever happening again?