Connacht Junior Cup Final
Sunday, May 28
3pm in Solar 21 Park, Castlebar
Castlebar Celtic v Athenry
Referee: Eugene Deering (Roscommon)
By Sunday evening, Castlebar Celtic can stand clear as the most successful club in Connacht Cup history.
Tied on nine victories with Galway Bohemians, a win over Athenry would see the Mayo county town club climb to the top of the mountain.
That would be motivation enough as it is, but last year’s infamous semi-final against Ballinasloe Town – which was called off at half-time due to torrential rain when Celtic were 2-0 ahead, after which Ballinasloe won the replay after extra-time – has given this team all the drive and focus needed.
After some patchy form midway during last season, everything has clicked and Castlebar Celtic have been the in-form team in the Super League since then, finishing last season as Super Cup champions after beating Kiltimagh/Knock United in a classic.
They have taken that form into this season’s competitions and manager Stevie Gavin admitted that semi-final last year was the catalyst for what has happened since.
“We’re looking forward to it. We’ve worked hard to get here. We’re zoning in on Athenry now and come three o’clock on Sunday, we’ll be ready.
“It was a hard one to take last year but that’s sport. We’ve regrouped and we went off for this year. It has been motivation.”
It’s a first Connacht Cup for this group of players, with only captain Ioseph O’Reilly and Jason Hunt the survivors from the 2014 final defeat to Ballinasloe Town. Gavin was manager for that final and Declan Flynn, another of those involved on the field that day, is now the assistant manager to Gavin.
There’s respect for their opponents, Athenry, in the final, but no fear.
“They’re a good team but we’re a good team too. Not every team can go up to Mervue (in the semi-final) and turn them over four-nil in their backyard. It’s a final and anything can happen and we’ll see how it goes,” says Gavin.
There’s quite a storied history between the two clubs. Athenry beat Celtic in the 2006 FAI Junior Cup semi-final and have won five Connacht Cup titles since then but Celtic have had a good record in recent years against the club, their most recent win coming in the last 16 of the Connacht Cup in 2020 through a late winner by Jordan Loftus. There was a 6-5 win in 2017 too.
Going deep in the Connacht Cup for two years running has been of major benefit to this group of players. When they were turned over by Hibernian FC of Waterford in the Junior Cup back in January, Stevie Gavin said it was an eye-opener for his team.
“There’s no fear from our end. Going up to Galway and playing teams from other areas of the country doesn’t faze us. We went up to Mervue last year, no one gave us a chance and we won 3-1. We weren’t as good as we are now and they were probably better than the team we played a couple of weeks ago.
“Our experience against Waterford Hibs was really positive even though we were beaten on the day. It was a great lesson for us in terms of the standard and in terms of playing at that level. It was the first time some of our guys played against that level of opposition.
“The result was 5-0 but it didn’t feel like that. We’ve regrouped since then and it was a key point in our learning.”
On the road to the Connacht Cup final, they have had some eye-catching results. The aforementioned 4-0 win over Mervue United in the semi-final caught the eye. Declan Flynn also feels the last 16 win over Calry Bohs was a big day.
“It was a tough pitch, good opposition. A lot of our squad are still young lads. Fionn Mahon, Mark Cunningham, Luke Kelly, Stefan in goal along with James Robinson. To be getting this type of football at a young age is absolutely fantastic for them and the key thing is that they’re performing. That’s on them.”
Those young players can also look to the likes of Colm Nevin, Ioseph O’Reilly and Neil Douglas, a trio of experienced players who management have lauded.
“(Colm) is a great lad around the group,” offers Flynn. “He encourages all the young fellows. He’s a great link between the back line and forward line. He’s still technically a brilliant footballer, we’re lucky to have him. Ioseph is a calm influence on the young players.
“He’s been absolutely outstanding,” said Gavin before quipping: “He had more hair though!
“From what you see on the pitch, he’s a really good player but around the dressing-room, around the squad, he is unbelievable. The way he talks to the young players and the help he’s given to me and Dec. When he talks, the dressing-room goes silent and everyone listens.”
For Neil Douglas, there is an opportunity to make history for himself as a victory will see him hold winners’ medals in Connacht Cups for Celtic at all age levels having also won at U12, U14, U16 and U18.
“Dougie has seen it all and done it all. He’s calm, brilliant and young lads see that. He’s well able to play and still has an awful lot to offer,” said Flynn.
“He’s a competitor,” added Gavin. “When you meet him, he’s the nicest guy you ever meet but he’s such a competitor. He probably gets away with stuff he shouldn’t because he’s a nice guy. It’s the smile and the eyes!
“Like Ioseph, around the squad he’s unbelievable with the younger guys.”