Willie Quinlan's joy, Carlow Rising, and the emotion of local radio
BY SHANE STAPLETON
Willie Quinlan couldn't keep a lid on his emotions any longer.
He’d been trying to contain himself as Carlow forced Kildare onto the ropes, but it all got too much when Conor ‘Horse’ Lawlor drove forward with goal on his mind. This was a chance for the knockout blow.
Brendan Hennessy was calling the Leinster quarter-final on KCLR96fm and once Lawlor unleashed his shot, he cried out: “it’s in the back of the net! Oh my God, Carlow have blown Kildare away… they thought they were playing no one today. They wrote us off on Twitter, wrote them off everywhere!”
All the while, co-commentator Quinlan could finally be able to erupt into incomprehensible screams of joy. A first win over the Lilywhites since 1953, a Leinster semi-final against Laois to come, and dreams of making a first provincial final since 1944.
Quinlan breaks into laughter when recalling his reaction to Lawlor’s goal. “It’s kind of difficult because at times you'd like to say more, and especially during that win against Kildare. I felt at half-time that we could possibly win the game but you're still thinking in the back of your head that it's a team that played Division 1 this season, and the fitness is going to come into it, and they're going to push on.
“When the goal went in, I looked at the time that was left, and there were seven points in it. I knew it was over. I let everything fly and just got excited. It's part of the emotion that local radio brings. If you listen to other commentaries, it stays at the one level and the one tempo, whereas we can get a little bit more excited because you're nearly supporting your team — even though you're trying to be as fair as possible.”
Given the depths that Carlow had plunged to in the past, as Quinlan recalls from experience, to now be facing fellow Division 4 finalist Laois in a Leinster semi-final is a glorious prospect. The Eire Og man lined out for his county for almost 15 years, but all of his successes came with the club. He won five Leinster club titles, appeared in a couple of AIB All-Ireland club finals, but that promise never translated to the inter-county stage.
In fact, the opposite was true, and a couple of low points really stick out in Quinlan’s mind. The first was during the 1992-93 campaign when they went to Cork in a league game and failed to register a score from play; the other nadir came against Meath in 1996.
“I think Joe Hayden got a point from a free, but I remember getting back on the bus from Cork thinking ‘my God, how far are we off any of the county teams if that's what's going to happen in a league game?’,” Quinlan says.
“Then I remember ‘96 when we beat Wexford in Dr Cullen Park and Wicklow in Newbridge. We then went to play Meath in a Leinster game and were beaten by 24 points to six. When I say they could have got six goals out of six points, I mean that they started putting them over the bar with the goal on.
“It was just devastating coming off the field. It took a long time to get over those kinds of beatings. They are days that you just want to forget; you want to crawl into a hole and you don't want to talk to anybody.”
The Barrowsiders are searching for a first championship win over the O’Moore County since 1988, but Quinlan played in perhaps their most famous clash since then. That was in 1995, two years after former Laois player Bobby Miller had taken over Carlow. Quinlan and Co had bought into Miller’s plans, and little wonder as he had already managed Eire Og to county and provincial glory.
So to the clash at O’Moore Park on June 18 1995, in what turned out to be the first GAA game truly scrutinised by video evidence. Late on, substitute Michael Turley took a shot from close range and, to the astonishment of many around the ground, Offaly referee Noel Cooney awarded a score. ‘Sunday Game’ replayed the footage later that night, and conclusively proved that the decisive score had in fact gone wide.
“I actually played that day and they got a score in the second half when the game was fairly tight, and we knew it was wide,” Quinlan recalls. “Anyway, the umpire gave it and we ended up losing by a point, but in fairness to Laois it was incredible what they did.”
It most certainly was. The O’Moore county board offered a rematch, which was happily accepted by both the Leinster Council and Carlow. There was one snag though, Miller had to round up his players and inform them of the decision.
“After the game, we came back through Timahoe and the lads had a couple of pints in the pub,” says Quinlan. “I was working the next day but I met up with them again around one o’clock.
“Then, at about 3 o'clock, Bobby Miller arrived on the scene and said ‘we have a replay next Sunday’. Everyone was more stunned than anything else really, because the referee's decision is the referee’s decision and that's the end of the game, it's all over.
“They gave Carlow a replay which was fantastic, and they beat us the next day (1-16 to 0-16), but it was brilliant.”
Twenty-three years on, Carlow are looking to make headlines again, but this time by qualifying for the Leinster final. Manager Turlough O’Brien has done a fantastic job with the county, and though they lost a Division 4 final to Laois, a first promotion for 33 years was the bigger aim.
They’ve had their challenges too, with star player Brendan Murphy heading to America for the summer, but they beat Louth and Kildare anyway. Quinlan explains that O’Brien’s biggest achievement has been to raise the belief of the players, while the appointment of Down native Stephen Poacher as coach has been a masterstroke.
“The biggest testaments to Turlough is that he has changed the mindset of the players really,” says Quinlan. “When Turlough was there for two years and nothing was really happening, he realised himself that he had to do something, or change something, or get somebody in. That somebody is Steven Poacher.
“Stephen dictates the way they're playing, the game plan, where everyone should be, and their attitude. Fair play to Turlough, it was a huge thing to do to get somebody in for the football end of it. You could look at Leo Cullen getting senior coach Stuart Lancaster in with Leinster: it takes the pressure off him that he can do other things. Turlough is a very good organiser, he possibly has 95% of the best players in the county playing for him and believing in their system and in each other.
“I think that was a huge thing, and Bobby Miller probably changed that at Eire Og. I remember winning (a county) three-in-a-row in ‘87, ‘88 and ‘89, and then being beaten in the first round of Leinster every time — it wasn't until he came in and changed the belief in players (that we started winning). So Turlough has changed mindset of players in the county. It's more like a club team with the county, they are really tight bunch.
“I think Carlow will win this one,” Quinlan says with pride. “Carlow have been beaten twice this year (by Laois in the league) but the confidence we’re after getting from the Louth and Kildare matches is absolutely huge.”