By Fiona O’Brien
Chris Byrne is facing the challenge of orchestrating his side’s first ever Senior All-Ireland quarter-final this weekend and London champions St Kiernans take on Slaughtneil in Greenford on Sunday.
The Ulster champions’ club are in the middle of a record-breaking year, having won Ulster titles in football, hurling and camogie. But the Kiernans have broken their own records this year, walking away from the London season having won four of a possible four senior titles, including their first ever championship and league title.
And now the Derry champions stand in their way from becoming the first ever London team to break the deadlock and contest a senior All-Ireland semi-final. And Mayo native Byrne, the Kiernans’ manager, along with his sideline team of Mort Reidy, Liam Brennan, Martin Hession and Ger O’Shea, is determined to make sure that they are not just there to make up the numbers.
“If we didn’t believe that we would give these fellas a game there wouldn’t be any point in turning up and I wouldn’t be wasting my time or the lads’ time training,” he says. “We’re not there to be also-rans. Luck won’t win this, you have to put hard work in. Hard work in training and how you set yourselves up and how you apply yourselves.”
This year St Kiernans beat their long-time rivals Tir Chonaill Gaels to take the county throne for the first time, and the Gaels know better than most at how hard it is to progress from this stage.
The closest a London side has ever come to winning this tie was back in 1991 when they forced Derry champions, and eventual All-Ireland winners, Lavey to a replay, with Tir Chonaill side that five out of the six starting forwards were former senior inter-county players.
But Byrne, although aware of the task ahead of his side, is not daunted by it.
“We are not going to be afraid of them. We will embrace it and be in the game for as long a period as possible.
“It is our first time in this position, it is new territory for us so there is a confidence there. But at the same time we are playing the Ulster champions who are being managed by Micky Moran who has massive experience.”
Slaughtneil are riding a crest of momentum as a club, with the Derry side on a high from the unprecedented amount of success they have achieved at all levels as they go on to chase senior All-Ireland titles in both football and hurling. However Byrne is concentrating on the football team at hand rather than the historic run Slaughtneil are having across the club.
“We are not going to read too much into that. Whoever comes out of Ulster is always going to be a tough team. But Slaughtneil wouldn’t necessarily be a team that our lads would be too over-familiar with.
“They haven’t got huge big-name players, or a team like Crossmaglen that come with a name that sometimes lads might be in awe of. Sometimes that could give a team a three or four point head start psychologically before the ball has even been thrown in.”
And Byrne also feels like his Kiernans side will have some advantages of their own. “Their club is having a massive year, but Ulster is always tough to come out of so maybe that intensity might not be there, or they may have taken their eye off the ball just looking ahead to playing the Leinster champions in the semifinal.
“And this year with Ruislip closed nobody really expected to play in Greenford.
“It has been a good facility for us all year and we know what it’s like to play there, but it won’t be what Slaughtneil are used to for a game of this size. Hopefully that will give us some advantage.”
Byrne wryly jokes that he has kept up a bit of interest ‘with one eye on the Ulster champions’ as his side progressed through London, but also hopes that that would give his side a bit of advantage. With the county and provincial ties from Ireland easily accessible on the television to teams over here it is easier to keep up with their progress than it would be for Irish-based teams looking at games over here.
“They won’t know too much about us either.”
Slaughtneil, who were also Ulster champions in 2014 before losing the All- Ireland final to Corofin of Galway, are known as a strong team that attack on the break and similarities could be drawn with the Kiernans.
“They play with a lot of men behind the ball, and play it short. They have good footballers who can take on their men, but hopefully we can stop that flow early on before they push up the field.”
The tactics masterminded by Byrne and his management team were credited for being spot-on to claim the county title back in October, but does tinkering with the system hinder playing a team’s own game?
“We won’t be changing things around too much.
“There’s no point in concentrating on and picking out other fellas from another team because you get too far away from what you are good at yourself.
“We will set up well and hopefully remain patient. We know that we can’t let them have any ball handy to build an attack. So hopefully it will work.
“I know it hasn’t happened before at senior level but seeing Dunedin Connolly’s All-Ireland quarter—final junior win over the weekend shows that teams coming over from Ireland are beatable.
“John Mitchels from Liverpool have done it a few times and now it is up to us to build on it at senior level.”