Thursday’s Tuohy Cup final triumph saw Aisling Annacotty get their hands on a top-tier trophy for the first time since lifting 1978’s Saxone Cup.
By beating Janesboro to 2017’s first piece of silverware, manager Mike McCarthy masterminded an end to the club’s painful 39-year wait for glory, underlining its impressive upturn in fortunes since he returned to the helm last summer.
McCarthy’s one-year sabbatical resulted in a pretty shambolic 2015/16 season, in which the club won only three of its 20 league games to finish a disappointing 9th. The 13 goals scored by Keith Mawdsley before his January departure — almost half of Aisling’s final tally of 27 — kept the team out of relegation trouble almost singlehandedly.
The striker’s November 1 double at home to struggling Summerville Rovers all but made Ray McMahon’s side safe, leading to a prolonged period of dead-rubber games. With the ‘B’ team’s promotion bid prioritised in the spring, Aisling ended up using a staggering 47 different starters by season’s end to fill the gaps.
Stepping back into the breach in the wake of that chaos, few would have thought that McCarthy’s shrewdest move would be tempting a player in his fifth decade out of retirement. But, so it has proved, as veteran centre-back Damien ‘Wobbler’ Collins has been integral to Aisling’s successes in both penalty-boxes this season.
Aisling’s only ever-present in the league before he sat out the recent Ballynanty Rovers game due to suspension, Collins’ performances have defied his advancing years, thanks to his positional intelligence, calmness, and aerial dominance.
Indeed, the latter has also been a particularly useful attacking tool for McCarthy, especially when used in conjunction with the long-throwing prowess of left-back Barry Hooton — another shrewd off-season acquisition.
Collins and Hooton were part of a defence that conceded only four goals in their first six league games, as McCarthy’s 4-3-1-2 system proved tough to break down. Patryk Staniszweksi, once of Janesboro, who made just one league appearance for Carew Park last season, also underwent a personal renaissance of his own in this back-line.
The Polish defender wasn’t the only one that McCarthy extracted the best from however, and although the club’s defensive record has slipped over time, the likes of Alan Connors and Neil O’Brien — signed from relegated Mungret Regional and disbanded Summerville respectively — have also reached individual heights under his tutelage.
Goalkeeper Stephen Walsh was another player brought in by McCarthy who perhaps did not receive the game-time he felt he merited at his former club.
Signed from Janesboro, where he was dislodged by Prospect Priory’s Darren Glasheen towards the back-end of last season, Walsh has enjoyed his strongest season in junior football to date, slotting a string of man of the match performances under his belt.
A glut of dissent-related yellow cards, that saw him miss the same Ballynanty game as Collins, stands as one of the few blots in Walsh’s copybook, and if the young goalkeeper can get a handle on his temperament, he will surely continue to go from strength to strength.
Let’s not forget the old Aisling reliables that have contributed to this success either. Chimka Manjor’s return to the midfield fold has been an extremely welcome one, and it was the former Limerick FC player’s inside-left dribble that won Aisling’s penalty-kick opener on Thursday night.
Brian Butler, the perennially-unsung utility man, has also played his part, performing impeccably in whatever role is asked of him. Whether stationed at right-back, on the right of midfield, or in central midfield as on Thursday night, Butler’s energy and technical prowess always catch the eye.
It’s worth mentioning too that of the four players who could have been considered regulars last season, Butler is the only one that’s still there — an Aisling constant.
The fiery Stephen Goggin, holding midfielder on Thursday, was another familiar face tempted back by McCarthy during the summer that has put in a productive shift for his club — albeit one that has too often been interrupted by avoidable suspensions.
Elsewhere, Evan O’Connor’s recent return from Limerick FC also deserves a mention, as it was the winger’s goals — a double in the semi-final against Pike, and an extra-time stunner on Thursday — that ultimately clinched the Tuohy Cup for his club.
Finally, this column must highlight the contributions of two men that have carried the goalscoring load for an otherwise underfiring Aisling this season. Mawdsley’s eight league goals may have dried up since McCarthy’s mid-season switch to 4-1-4-1 pushed him into an ill-fitting wide role, but his return from Limerick has been crucial nonetheless.
The former Herbertstown youth filled the lone striker role against Janesboro in Jason Lipper’s absence, notching the penalty that put Aisling on the road to their eventual 2-1 extra-time victory.
Lipper, ineligible for the Tuohy Cup due to signing a ‘B’ form at the beginning of the season, has absolutely flourished in the number nine role since McCarthy’s formational change-of-heart. The lone striker role is tailor made for the physical frontman, who bagged five goals in two league games a few weeks back.
Accommodating both players, in a system that doesn’t leave Aisling too vulnerable at the back, is a tough ask, but it’s one that McCarthy is surely up to. Congratulations to him, and to John Lysaght, Dermot Clune, and the rest of his backroom team, for righting a rocky ship, and securing some long-awaited success.