The end credits were about to roll on Eamonn Callaghan's career when there came an unexpected twist, and the moment he thought was never going to arrive.
Callaghan is 39, and nearly 24 years on from playing his first senior game for Naas. He'd never even played in a county final prior to November's victory over Sarsfields. It was the club's first Kildare SFC title win since 1990.
There followed a provincial adventure which had a victory over Tullamore thanks to a last minute freak goal, an easy win against Blessington, and an extra-time semi-final triumph over Shelmaliers. This Saturday will see Naas play in its first ever Leinster senior football final against Dublin champions Kilmacud Crokes.
Even in his twilight, Callaghan - who retired from inter-county football in 2018 after a 17-year career - is one of Naas' key forwards. Against Shelmaliers, he scored six points, including a late equalising free to send the game to extra-time.
"Ah it’s the top like - definitely," says Callaghan when asked where the past two months rank in his football career.
"I suppose the timing of it, coming to the end of my career, I never thought I’d be in this position. It’s been a long road, even with Kildare as well, we were close a couple of times but to win that county title for the first time in 31 years, that was a massive thing for me growing up you know, and to finally do that, to finally get over the line, that was something special.
"At this stage of my career like, I didn’t even think I’d be playing football never-mind playing in a Leinster final."
In October, a week before the Kildare semi-final against Maynooth, the club found itself in turmoil when they parted ways with manager Paul Kelly. Into the void stepped a player-driven group led by Eoin Doyle.
"I would help out as much as I can but he has really taken the reins on it," says Callaghan.
"He has help from a few other lads from the club as well who have been involved, there’s three or four of them who have been helping out at the training sessions and on match-day.
"When we went down that route, we thought it would just be a short-term gig preparing for a couple of matches but then we won the semi-final and the final. We didn’t think we’d be still going over Christmas and into the new year but it’s great, it’s been great.
"Eoin has put a huge amount of time into it away from the football pitch to prepare us as professionally as we ever have been and he’s an unbelievable character as well. He has great respect amongst the players and while I’m sure it’s taken a lot out of him, he certainly hasn’t shown it on the pitch either."
The 2021 championship win was just the club's second since the glory days of the 1920s and early 1930s when it claimed seven titles. Considering Naas' population of 21,000, and that it's a one-club town, the recent lack of success has the scent of underachievement.
"We were never really competing, I’ve only played in two semi-finals, and that was since 1998!" says Callaghan.
"So it wasn’t like we were underachieving - the expectation wasn’t even there to be honest. And a lot of people would have felt, with a big town, a big population and a big club membership, that we should be competing every year and obviously, we should but, for whatever reason we never really were competitive in Kildare.
"It was something that was talked about a lot inside and outside our group but we just had to keep on going. We always had the numbers but we probably just didn’t have the quality in fairness, to be competitive.
"The underage structures eventually came through and those lads developed into senior players really and that was the difference this year.
"That was the start of it really, that was the big one winning that  Féile. There are a good few of those lads either playing or on the panel now and even after that Féile team, there’s been a few more wins at under-16 and minor.
"Listen, that’s happened in a lot of clubs, it’s happened in our own club at different times but we didn’t get the benefit of it coming through to senior so in fairness to these young lads, they stuck at it, they kept together and the majority of them now are still playing senior for Naas, which is great.
"They’re good lads in fairness, there’s no issues with [over-celebrating]. I’d be more worried with other lads on our team! We probably understood the magnitude of what was going on but those younger lads are well used to it at this stage so yeah, I was more worried about myself and a couple of the older lads getting carried away!"
Extra-time to come in the the @gaaleinster club SFC semi-final with Eamonn Callaghan kicking the levelling point for @NaasGAA against @shelmaliers - it finished 1-11 each - follow extra time on @RTE2 and @RTEplayer #rtegaa pic.twitter.com/Xi0wpXy85S
— RTÉ GAA (@RTEgaa) December 18, 2021
Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
The AIB GAA Leinster Senior Club Football Championship Final, which takes place at Croke Park, this Saturday, January 8th at 5pm will see the Kildare champions take on Dublin's Kilmacud Crokes. Naas are set to feature in their first-ever provincial final whilst Crokes are chasing their fifth Leinster title. This game will be broadcast live on RTÉ 2.