‘It has been an amazing two year journey together’... Smith reflects on incredible O'Carolan College experience
Among the contingent of people who travelled down from the Royal County to Carlow town on Saturday was a man who clearly wanted O'Carolan College to win. He had relatives on the team and he's a great GAA man who obviously has a real gra for Meath football combined with a fierce interest, a passion, in where it is going.
The boys from Castleisland claimed the silverware so the Meathman didn't get his primary wish - but he got something else instead. Something perhaps even more profound and lasting.
"That game has restored my faith in Gaelic football," he said. "It showed me just how good a game it can be when it's played in the right way, with the proper approach."
He was right. The game was indeed a brilliantly entertaining contest. There was little of the toing and froing, the passing backwards and sidewards that can be seen in all too often in inter-county games which obviously are the matches most often seen on TV. The man wished that Saturday's final could be shown widely and used as an example of how the game "should be played."
O'Carolan College didn't end up with an All-Ireland title but what a year they have had under the guidance of coach Stephen Smith and selectors Anthony Monaghan and Peter McCormack.
What victories to savour, stories to tell of great adventures embarked on and opponents conquered. What honour this bunch of supremely talented players have brought to the school, to their clubs, their families, to themselves. Sure the sting of disappointment will be considerable this week but once that dissipates all concerned can reflect on a wonderful campaign.
Before Saturday's showdown the team had scored a truly remarkable 28-77 in six games played, conceding a very modest 3-29. It was the form of champions but sport offers few certainties and on Saturday they met their match; a richly talented, physically imposing St Patrick's, Castleisland side.
Coach Smith afterwards spoke of the "incredible" year, how the players were "exceptional." He was referring to the rich reservoir of footballing talent within the team but something even more fundamental when it comes to achieving success. The players attitude. Their hunger.
"The lads have been exceptional, every man has worked so hard all year, everybody put so much effort into everything we sought to do," he said.
"We had a couple of goal chances in the opening half today that didn't go our way. We didn't win but that was no fault of the lads, the work they have put into all the games they played has been exceptional.
"Castleisland are an exceptional team and that final ball, that final pass didn't work our way often enough today. It has been an amazing two year journey together, a lot of the lads on the team were fifth year last year but I couldn't have asked for more from them."
Some of the games on the way to the final proved testing for the Nobber schools, but most were won, as the aggregates scorelines suggest, by the proverbial cakewalk. For instance in the Leinster final the O'Carolan boys defeated Colaiste Cois Life by 3-12 to 0-2. In the All-Ireland semi-final (normally close affairs) they sailed home, 6-15 to 0-1.
In hindsight coach Smith felt that maybe it might have been better if those games had proved to be more testing. It might have honed his team better for the kind of whirlwind the Kerry boys would whip up.
"A tighter semi-final would have helped the situation but you can only take each game on its own merits. The big scores we got in games was through hard work sure but also never stopping, fighting the whole way through, including right up to the last kick today."
A teacher of woodwork and graphics at O'Carolan College, Smith joked how he is a Cavanman who is in Meath to show how football should be played. The flash of humour, however, was only fleeting. He was, after all, on his way into a silent dressing room to speak with a group of very disappointed young men when he stopped to talk to the Meath Chronicle.
He spoke about how he and his selectors were lucky to have "an exceptional crop" of young players to work with. When that's allied with hunger and an aptitude for graft, success will invariably follow. Important life lessons, he was perhaps suggesting, can be learned from football.
O'Carolan were unlucky too on Saturday in that they lost one of their strongest players, Killian Smyth, who shipped a knock in the opening half and didn't re-emerge.
They did have exceptional performances from players such as Sean O'Hare, Ciaran O'Hare, Rian McConnell, Rian Stafford, Adam Matthews, David Curtis, but in a very real sense every player had a part in conjuring up a performance full of adventure and honest endeavour.
Coach Smith pointed out how back in the 1970s, O'Carolan College won a Leinster football title but there was no All-Ireland series. Saturday was a chance for the school to land the big prize. They fell short but what an adventure. What a game.
The supporter who had travelled down from Meath didn't have a win to savour but he was convinced he had seen "at least five or six" players who will play senior for Meath in the future. That and the fact his faith in Gaelic football as a game was restored ensured it was a good day for him, despite the defeat.