When Eddie Kinsella laced up his boots and stepped out onto the hallowed turf in Croke Park last year to referee the All-Ireland minor final, it was undoubtedly the biggest moment of his GAA career.
After rising steadily through the ranks as a referee, his graph continued to show an upward curve throughout 2009 and he looked set to become a fixture on the intercounty scene for years to come. As he looked forward to 2010, the news came through that he was not going to be on the list of the top 18 referees for senior intercounty championship games. It came as a surprise for the Courtwood man, but as the old saying goes, 'when god closes a door, he opens a window'. With more free time now on his hands than he had anticipated St Conleth's approached him about taking the reins for the year, and after mulling the offer over, he decided to accept.
Having been founded in 2002, St Conleth's won the Intermediate championship in 2003 but struggled at senior level, taking a step back down soon after their promotion. With good young players coming through in recent times, however, and a handful of experienced heads still eager to return to the senior championship, Kinsella had all the raw materials he needed to make the team successful.
They recevied a boost when they were offered the chance to compete in the Laois senior championship as well as the intermediate, and as Kinsella looks back at option they were given at the time, he concedes it was a major turning point in their season, even at that early stage. "I spoke to a few of the more senior members of the team (about going senior) and they said 'why not?'.
"It definitely was an important part of our season, and getting to play against the likes of Sarsfields, Timahoe, Park-Ratheniska and Crettyard improved us, we were right with Sarsfields until about 10 minutes to go, and they only pulled away then."
With Laois club teams having won the last three Leinster SFC titles, there was no better club championship in which this St Conleth's side could hope to improve. With the Laois intermediate title ultimately sewn up after what Kinsella concedes was one of their toughest games of the year, against Killeen, they embarked on a provincial campaign which saw them through to the final against Stabannon of Louth. Four points down in the second half and with just over 15 minutes left, they came storming back, taking the game to extra time before winning by five points.
They performed a similar feat in the All-Ireland semi-final, coming back from four down against St Gall's to take a three point lead and win by one in the end, and Kinsella admits it has been that 'never-say-die' attitude which has impressed him the most this year. "I always tell the girls to keep working until the final whistle, and that's what they do. We got a goal at an important stage of the Leinster final and we got one at nearly the same time in the All-Ireland semi-final, so the girls know that when they're playing how important it is to finish strong."
Strong finishing is something West Clare Gaels have been doing this year too, in an attacking sense, as their forward line has racked up some impressive scores. While Kinsella concedes their attack is strong, he has total faith in the Conleth's defence. "We have a tight defence, we haven't been conceding big scores and we have only conceded one goal in the last three matches."
There is sure to be plenty of support in Nenagh this Sunday too, as their success has caught the imagination of the whole area, with Kinsella acknowledging the support he and team have received, both from fans and local businesses, has played a huge part in their success.
It has all lead up to this weekend, and so Kinsella will once again lace up his boots, this time in the slightly less auspicious surroundings of McDonagh Park, and step out onto the pitch. He concedes, however, that being on the sideline is a different feeling to being in the middle of the field. "Before refereeing the All-Ireland final I was nervous", he explains "but there is a different buzz about this, it's different to refereeing, I can't explain it."
This is undoubtedly a different feeling for him. As a referee he was a neutral, not safe from the nerves but not so worried about the final result. This time, he will have the pressure of knowing almost 90 training sessions and over 30 games this year have lead up to this point, and another hour of good hard graft could see them crowned All-Ireland champions. His emotions after the All-Ireland final are sure to be different than they were in Croke Park over a year ago. This is now the biggest moment of his GAA career, and hopefully for everyone concerned, there will be smiles all round come Sunday evening.