"There's a reason we did all those sprints" - Tunnel-vision brings the Barrs back
Alan O'Connor remembers the slogging. How could he forget it?
It was the quietest January known to man, it was a batten down the hatches job but, in lock-down this time last year, the St Finbarr's senior football team weren't sitting on their hands. There was no end in sight and there were no fixtures to aim for but out of dedication or madness or whatever you want to call it, a whole load of GAA players were still training away.
And the Barrs' boys were no different. It would be a stretch to say that, back then, they were thinking about this Sunday, when they'll take on Austin Stacks of Kerry in the Munster senior football final but deep down, days like these were a dream that inspired them.
For Alan O'Connor, who plays centre back for the Cork county champions, the juice was definitely worth the squeeze.
"I can remember running there out on The Farm (UCC sports grounds in Cork), in horrible weather, wind and storm and all this kind of stuff. Then like you think back at all that and the journey it's been.
"For me I suppose I think of it as, this is the culmination of all that work. This is the time to actually put the shoulder to the wheel. There's a reason we did all those sprints, there's a reason we went to all those gym sessions.
"It hasn't been easy, especially with Covid, there was a lot more of an onus on training yourself because there's been times where club activity has been suspended for everyone and you've had to do your own thing. That puts a lot more ownership on the players.
"I think one of the things we're kind of blessed with is players who are happy enough to do the work, without needing the whole team around them, without needing fellas looking over their shoulder, so look I think it just creates a bit more ownership and responsibility ourselves, a bit more preparation from a managerial perspective, but thankfully we've been able to come together on it."
It ended in tears the last time they were here, in 2018, when Dr Crokes hammered them in the first round of the Munster championship but they're a different team now.
"I remember I was chatting to one of long-standing club men Liam Hodnett and he was involved in the football section for years, he's a great club man. He said, we had lost the county in 2017, and he said, 'Look lads in my experience, you have to lose one to win one. I know the next time ye're in it, ye won't lose one.'
"Lo and behold, we followed it up then with 2018 county final win. I think this is something now we see as, when we went out against Crokes, we under-performed on the day and we certainly didn't give as good an account of ourselves as we probably should have. There's a lot of us that were involved in that game and are still involved today, we're looking to kind of right those wrongs."
Traditionally, the Barrs are powerhouses when it comes to these national competitions. Out of their nine county final wins prior to this year, they'd converted four of them to Munster titles and two to All-Ireland clubs. This team are hoping to make their own bit of history.
"We're always conscious fellas who have worn the Barrs crest have gone on and won Munster clubs and All-Ireland clubs and represented Cork to a very high level. We're steeped in it But for us as well, we try to narrow our focus as a team, focus on ourselves and what we can do."
If that calls for a penalty shoot-out then, having lost one in last year's county final and won one in this year's semi-final, the Barrs will be ready. O'Connor didn't take a spot kick either of those days but he recalls the experience and says it was absolutely gruelling.
"I didn't take any penalties and I won't be taking any penalties either, I'll just put it that way. If we had 15 penalty takers, I'd be number 16," he says with a laugh.
"To be honest with you, a penalty shootout, having been the beneficiary of it and the losing side of it as well, I just think it's a very tough way to decide a game. I think both teams would have agreed both years, that's the kind of thing that you'd love to give another crack in terms of a game."
"When you see the lads walking up, and to be fair now this year, if you watch the penalties, you'd see one of our lads in particular was exceptionally confident going up to his penalty. It does fill you with a bit of confidence when you see that but I think when you're watching the penalty shootout and you've no control over the outcome, you're a passenger really hoping your team-mates will pull through, it's a tough watch.
"I think previously we hadn't done a lot of practicing for penalties but this year we've done a few games between ourselves, A v B or inter-team games that have actually ended in draws and we've done one or two penalty shootouts.
"To be fair John Kerins came up the hero for us there against the Haven, that's something we've shown in the penalty shootouts, even when we do them ourselves, it's clearly a strength of his. I know him and Pakie O'Neill, the other goalkeeper were working quite a bit together on that as well. So look, we did practice it and thankfully it went our way as a result."
They'll be hoping for more of the same on Sunday. Stacks vs the Barrs. Kerry vs Cork. A Munster final in Semple Stadium.
"A rising tide lifts all boats," O'Connor says of the buzz in his club.
One more lift would do just fine.