When Ardclough triumphed over Naas in last year’s championship decider it was one of the most remarkable victories for any side in a county final for quite some time. The men from the small village in the north of the county lined out with a large host of players well into their thirties as they came up against a young and vibrant side who looked destined for the title.
It seemed like they were giving it one last blast. A big blowout. A side who were writing a final chapter 12 years on from when many of them had won their last title. At least that’s how it seemed to many on the outside, but Ardclough captain Paul Fitzgerald laughs at that notion now. The corner-forward is one of the elder statesmen in the team after turning 30 just a couple of weeks ago, counting four teammates above him in terms of age, but looking behind to see the potential coming through from the underage ranks.
“It’s funny, the people outside and those who wouldn’t follow the hurling too closely, you could see how they’d come up with that analogy,” Fitzgerald told KildareNow.
“But if you look at the starting team from the semi-final I was the fifth oldest at 30 and we’ve a lot of lads coming through. We have a lot of lads in their 20s now, and people might not realise that Liam Hanley has only turned 21 but he has been knocking about the team for four or five years now, so we’ve a lot more younger lads coming through than people realise.
“The older you get, the better you look after yourself and those lads are certainly a testament to that. Last Friday was my birthday and winning last Saturday was one of the best birthday presents I got. It was a great feeling.”
Saturday presents the opportunity this group of Ardclough players to etch their own little place in the annals of their club’s history when they fight for a second successive county title, an achievement that hasn’t been done in 35 years. Back then Ardclough were the dominant force in what was a much less competitive club championship in Kildare, but their greatness was assured as they won five county titles in a row.
Fitzgerald has heard plenty about that team that dominated years before he was born, and many of them remain influential figures in the club to this day.
“There is a lot of talk in the club about the team of the 80s and the great players like Mick Duane, Ned Walsh, the Johnsons and the Christians. It would be nice to emulate them and go back to back. It hasn’t been spoken about too much, but it would be nice to be able to be recognised and talk to the greats of the club from years ago,” he said.
12 months ago it was the corner-forward who left the biggest stamp on the big occasion as he clocked up 1-4 in a supreme performance against Naas. He is well aware of a very different threat being posed by Celbridge side that have been gradually improving throughout the championship, and much like Ardclough, they are peaking at the opportune time.
The sharpshooting forward is not surprised to see both teams building momentum at the right time, particularly due to the influx of more players throughout the summer who might have been missing at earlier stages.
“Celbridge have been there before and they’ve won a few titles – probably a few more than us in the last 10 or 12 years,” he said.
“It’s all about peaking in October; you don’t win the championship in June or July. We did the same last year because we didn’t win any of the group matches until the last one at the end of August and we went on and won it, and we didn’t win a group game until the end of August this year again, so it’s all about peaking at the right time again.
“I think – and it’s probably the same for Celbridge – it’s about getting lads back. When you have quite a young panel a lot of members from the panel might be away on holidays, or on J1s or working. You’ll find that lads are missing a couple of games here and there.”
To say that this Saturday’s final pairing is a novel one would be an understatement; neither of these teams have ever met each other on the big day despite being two of the most successful sides in the county.
Fitzgerald says the rivalry is alive and kicking though, and with many of the players on both sides familiar from growing up going to school together and also playing with each other at intercounty level, there will be no shortage of familiarity.
“There would have been a big rivalry going back a long time, and they beat us in the semi-finals three or four years in a row there from 2012 on, so they had a bit of a run on us,” admits Fitzgerald.
“There would be a strong rivalry between the two clubs, but there would be a strong mutual respect there as well. Lads would have soldiered together at intercounty level for a number of years and lads would have won Christy Ring Cups together, so there is a big respect there between the two clubs.”
As regards the rescheduling of the fixture to take place this Saturday rather than last Sunday, it makes no difference to Fitzgerald or his teammates according to the captain. There have been some who have criticised the move to change the fixture to accommodate the Celbridge footballers, but Fitzgerald is just happy to get on with it whenever it comes around.
“It doesn’t make a difference to be honest. In fairness to the county board they told us well in advance that it might be changed with changes in the football. It’s only an extra six days, it’s not like it’s a couple of weeks. It doesn’t really bother us when it’s played,” he said.
On Saturday, the experienced Fitzgerald will be a key protagonist for his side once again and will be hoping to win a third county title on a personal level and a 14th in all for his club.
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