All-Ireland Club Intermediate Hurling Championship Quarter-Final
By Damian Dolan
From staving off relegation to being crowned county champions, the transformation in Kilburn Gaels’ fortunes over the past 12 months has been mothing short of miraculous.
This time last year Kilburn were grateful just to still be plying their trade in London’s senior ranks, having beaten Cuchulains to avoid being pitted into a relegation play-off.
Relegation would have amounted to something of a fall from grace for a club crowned London champions in 2014, as it felt the full impact of losing 12 of its players ahead of the 2016 campaign.
An exodus many clubs would have capitulated under. But Kilburn survived and a year on, with some of those same players back on board, the club secured its third-ever senior county title with victory over three-in-a-row chasing Robert Emmetts at McGovern Park.
For veteran half back Keith Kennedy (pictured below right with manager Tom Bergin), who was part of all three of Kilburn’s championship winning sides, the prospect of another assault on the All Ireland Club Championship is as welcome as it was unlikely at the start of the year.
“It’s been such a turnaround from last year – we really struggled to stay up,” said Kennedy, who captained Kilburn to the All Ireland Club IHC final in 2015, only to lose out to Belfast’s O’Donovan Rossa.
“We were over the moon when we beat Cuchulainns, and a year later we’re winning the championship. It’s a credit to the lads and the effort everyone has put in.
“It [the All Ireland] was very far from our minds at the start of the year. To come from nowhere to winning the championship in 12 months was really good.”
Amongst those to return to the Kilburn cause this year were Brian Regan, Chris McAlinden, Martin Duggan and Donie Reale. Players Kennedy describes as “central”.
“When you take Brian Regan out of your backline you’re taking out your best player. It’s going to leave a big void,” he said.
Throughout the summer, Robert Emmetts had the swagger of champions-elect, but championships aren’t won in June and July, over the course of which Emmetts handed out three beatings to Kilburn.
An 11-point thrashing in the Collins Cup final was followed by a narrow Ryan Cup semi-final defeat, with Emmetts then winning the sides’ Division 1 League final meeting by 4-9 to 0-15. But Kilburn were playing the long game.
“No one likes getting beaten, but we didn’t read too much into those defeats. We didn’t pay them too much heed,” said Kennedy.
“They really beat us off the field in the Collins Cup final, but we were closer to them in the other two finals, so we knew there wasn’t much between the teams.”
When the sides then locked horns in the first round of the championship, it was Kilburn who came out on top, albeit a reversal of fortune Kennedy dismisses with both sides far from at full strength.
Kilburn would grow into the championship with every round on their way to topping the table, before thrashing Cuchulainns in their semifinal by 34 points.
Just eight had separated them in their group meeting. It was a statement. Kilburn were peaking when it mattered most, and despite going into the county final against Emmetts as firm underdogs, they’d timed their title assault to perfection.
Sean Conlon’s goal on the stroke of half-time and the ever-reliable freetaking of Stephen Lambert gave Kilburn a lead they never looked like relinquishing to prevail 1-16 to 0-14, and complete their remarkable transformation.
“We got stronger as the year went on. But we also knew how tough it was going to be because we hadn’t beaten the Emmetts in any game that mattered all year up to that,” said Kennedy.
“It was always going to come down to who wanted it more on the day, and things just went our way. We knew we had to start well and we did, and that laid a marker for the rest of the game.
“We took our chances in the first half and got the goal and that gave us the momentum, and we probably did deserve to win it. After a few barren years since the last time we’d won it in 2014, we were very happy.”
The contrast in emotion could not have been greater to Kilburn’s last experience in the All Ireland Club Championship – a painful 1-9 to 2-3 defeat to O’Donovan Rossa at Croke Park.
For Kennedy is was a disappointing end to an adventure which had brought Kilburn their first-ever All Ireland victory, a 1-10 to 1-8 win over Kilkenny and Leinster champions Mullinavat at Ruislip in the quarter-finals. Lambert scoring 1-7.
“That was a tough game; it was at the old Ruislip and it was a bit of a mud-bath, which probably played a little bit into our hands. “They were quite a young team and we were a bit older and more physical,” recalled Kennedy.
They followed that by beating Galway’s Cappataggle 0-11 to 0-10 in the semi-finals at the Gaelic Grounds. Lambert and James Egan pushed Kilburn into a three-point lead, but two injury-time Cappatagle scores made for a tense finish, but the Londoners held on to reach Croker.
“They started well, and we struggled to get into the game. We got going in the second half but their goalkeeper pulled off a few good saves (including saving a Keith Killilea penalty) but we fought it out and got there in the end,” said Kennedy.
The elation which followed soon turned to saddness, though (pictured below), as Kilburn fell just short of emulating Robert Emmett’s achievement of 2007.
Trailing by four points with ten minutes to go, Killilea’s second goal of the game gave Kilburn hope, but they couldn’t build on it.
“We thought we had all the hard work done by beating the Leinster and Connacht champions, and then the Ulster team caught us in the final,” said Kennedy, who is one of five survivors from that Croke Park day, along with Conor Hickey, Chris McAlinden, Brian Regan and Stephen Lambert.
“It was a disappointment because we didn’t perform on the day. They had a very different style of hurling to what we’d faced all year. They had a running, passing game, whereas we’re more direct ourselves.
“We found very little room for our forwards. They smothered us at the back and we found scores hard to come by. We didn’t play particularly bad, as they only scored 1-9, but we failed to score ourselves.”
So close and yet so far for a club which had reached its first-ever senior county final only nine years earlier – a sobering 14-point defeat at the hands of a Robert Emmetts side on the cusp of All Ireland success.
But Kilburn were an emerging force in London and having been part of that losing side in 2006, Kennedy was there in 2010 as the club won its first senior title. That was followed by another in 2014, with Kennedy as captain. All of which only made the club’s Croke Park defeat harder to take.
“It was very disheartening; it was such an achievement for a club like ours to get to the final, and then you think ‘we’re not going to get back here again. It’s a long road back’,” said 35-year-old Kennedy.
“Then the following year when you lose all your players you think ‘this isn’t going to happen again at my age’”. Well, it could still happen. The All Ireland Club Championship challenge is a difficult one, as Kennedy knows only too well, but as he also observes it’s “not insurmountable”.
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