‘Fine margins’ the key as Carlow hope to rise once more after years in the wilderness

Paul Doyle will hope that Carlow can repeat their 2018 Joe McDonagh Cup success. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

There’s only one guarantee in sport – nothing is ever for certain – and Carlow hurling skipper Paul Doyle knows that better than most.

Doyle was part of the county set-up when Carlow landed the inaugural Joe McDonagh Cup in 2018 before they performed respectably in the Leinster SHC the following year.

They even grabbed headlines with a notable draw against the might of Galway in the 2019 league, and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before they dined at Leinster hurling’s top table once again.

That’s not exactly how it panned out, though, and today is their first McDonagh Cup decider in five years as they struggled for traction in between before finally getting the train firmly back on tracks again.

Just 10 of the 26-man cohort that togged out for the ’18 final are involved in Tom Mullally’s squad heading to Croke Park this time around and Doyle is keen to seize the day before him.

The St Mullins’ defender is far from a veteran at 30 but he knows that occasions like this don’t come along every year and he’s keen to take this chance with both hands.

“It’s my eighth season playing now, time flies and it’s mad really,” Doyle said.

“Every day you get to put on the jersey you’re delighted, but you just want to be cherishing every day you have with it because you realise the days are dwindling down a small bit.”

The second-tier championship may be some way off broadway – although this evening’s decider will be live on RTÉ (unlike ’18) – but it is everything you want in a competition.

It is “cut-throat” to the end, as evidenced by the four teams fighting it out for two final spots in the last round of games a fortnight ago and Carlow coming from seven points down to snatch a draw against Laois earlier in the competition. That is the result which has really brought them to this point.

“It’s a really tough competition to play in, anyone will tell you that. The four games we played were tight games. If we didn’t get that last-minute free to draw the game against Laois, if we didn’t get the penalty that ‘Mouse’ (Marty Kavanagh) scored, I wouldn’t be here,” Doyle said matter-of-factly.

“It’s fine margins really. It’s a cut-throat competition and a tough one to come through. If you go back down it’s not necessarily that you’re going to go back up, as we found. That just shows you.”

Doyle and Co will be going gung-ho to get their hands on silverware this evening but the carrot of an All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final – the winners play third in Leinster while the losers play third in Munster – is still there no matter what happens, and that’s a “massive thing”.

They welcomed Limerick, who won their first All-Ireland SHC title in 45 years later that summer, to Dr Cullen Park in 2018 and at least one other big tie awaits this summer no matter how things go against the Offaly in Croke Park (4.45).

“It’s a massive incentive there to get the chance to play against the top-tier counties to really see where you are against them, it’s a massive thing,” the secondary school teacher said.

But there’s only one thing in mind for now.

“Offaly is the only team in my eye-line at the moment. We’ll worry about that curve ball when we get to there. It’s all about Offaly now.”

Doyle knows that these type of opportunities don’t come around too often, and he’ll be doing everything possible to make his way up the Hogan Stand steps on what could be a famous night for the Barrowsiders.

Will Carlow rise once again? Only time will tell with a fascinating final around the corner.

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