The words never directly came out of his mouth but there was definitely a clear sense that Bryan Donnellan’s return for a 19th season at senior level for O’Callaghan’s Mills was overtly motivated by their brush with relegation at the backend of 2019.
As the captain, the 38 year old felt an extra responsibility to prove to even themselves that their spiral into the danger zone was merely an aberration. And how glad he and indeed O’Callaghan’s Mills are that their experienced core remained committed to the cause as far from the anxiety of an impending demotion showdown, the Fireballs are now on the cusp of a first county final in 27 years.
“I think the championship in Clare, while I like the format of it, is not forgiving at all. This year obviously we knew that there was no relegation so that helped. Last year after back-to-back defeats to Clonlara and Newmarket, your championship year was over so things can go from bad to worse very quickly. Whereas this year we got that first round win against Broadford and just built up confidence in the opposite direction.
“The difference between this year and last? I don’t know to be quite honest. Even two years ago, we made it to a semi-final and I couldn’t tell you any major difference between that and 2019 as we thought we we in good shape going into the championship last year.
“I suppose you need a bit of luck too along the way too, something that perhaps didn’t go our way last year.”
Despite making his senior championship debut against then county champions St Joseph’s Doora/Barefield in 2002, it took until the latter part of the decade for the Mills to assemble a potentially title contending squad as a Senior B final appearance against Crusheen was followed by contesting four of the next five quarter-finals. However, despite bringing Sixmilebridge to a replay in 2010 and then frustratingly unable to unlock the door against Clonlara from 2012-14, it appeared as if the Mills’ opportunity at a title tilt had passed them by.
“When I started out first, we were in relegation a lot and then we gradually got a good core together. We lost a Senior B Final in 2009 to Crusheen who then went onto win the county title the following year so we probably thought that we weren’t a million miles away from it back then. But it didn’t happen for us for whatever reason and then things didn’t go great after losing a few quarter-finals to Clonlara so I probably did think that our chance was gone.”
Hope springs eternal though and with a new crop of underage talent emerging triumphantly through the ranks, culminating in a first Under 21B crown in 23 years in early 2017, renewed optimism quickly returned to Donnellan and his senior colleagues.
“With such good younger lads coming through that are hurling mad, we probably more felt that the onus was on us to stick around and help them adjust to senior level rather that harbour any great ambitions of reaching a county final.
“But we won a Senior B [in 2017], reached the county semi-final against Ballyea the following year, then had that relegation final in 2019 and are now in a county final. It’s certainly been a real rollercoaster but that’s the beauty of this championship really.”
So what has been the key ingredient to the captain’s greatest ever campaign?
“Look, the way we’ve been approaching it this year is that we came into the championship on paper as the worst team at senior after just about escaping relegation. So we set out this year to only win our first round and take it from there. We just wanted to win a match and put a little bit of pride back into it for ourselves because we didn’t feel that we were the worst team in Clare.
“But at the same time, our performances and results didn’t reflect that so everyone says that they are only taking it one game at a time but we really did because we were starting at such a low base, how could we possibly take it any other way?
“And look, it has gotten us to a county final so we’re certainly not going to try and change our methods now.
“We know it’s going to be very difficult but we’ve been underdogs in every game and with the ‘Bridge being reigning champions, we’re obviously going to be underdogs again on Sunday. But I don’t think any team goes into a final thinking that it’s going to be an easy day out so we’ll approach it the same as the other games and set out to work hard for the full hour.
“It’s going to be really tough but we’re in the final now so we’ve given ourselves a chance.
“And hopefully we can take it.”