Croker dreams take shape for lucky few
The four All-Ireland senior finalists represent a broad cross-section of the club community
A large country town, two city suburbs and a rural idyll in the north east all feature in this year's All-Ireland club finals, where, of the four, only Castlebar Mitchels have played in a final before, suffering a comprehensive defeat.
All four know they might not be back at such lofty heights again; this could be their one chance to join the privileged ranks of those who have brought an All-Ireland back to their community.
Days out in Croke Park are beyond the wildest dreams of most clubs. All clubs are preoccupied with their local championships but once you win, like Cushendall, an Antrim hurling championship, you are automatic favourites to win through Ulster and an All-Ireland final is only one step after that. Having lost eight All-Ireland semi finals, last year Cushendall lost the Ulster final to Portaferry. But in looking for a low point on the journey, a pivotal moment, they will tell you it was the county final of three years ago when they lost to Loughgiel by 11 points.
They have seen Loughgiel win an All-Ireland, with some envy, but also drawn from the feat because they share a common isolation from the main hurling constituency and a constant battle to remain connected. Loughgiel lost six county finals in a row before they went on to win an All-Ireland in 2012. Were Cushendall to win on Thursday they would be the only club from Ulster outside of Loughgiel to do so.
Their opponents, Na Piarsaigh, are familiar with what Antrim has to offer. In 2012 they were beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final by Loughgiel after winning their first Munster club title. They won Munster again in 2013 but lost to Portumna in the All-Ireland semi final. "We're shattered," their manager Sean Stack admitted afterwards. "It will take a while to get over that one."
They've have shown a resilience to come back so soon. This year, like Cushendall, they've broken new ground, winning through to the All-Ireland final at the third attempt. Speaking in 2013 ahead of their Munster final against Sixmilebridge, the Na Piarsaigh and former Limerick hurler Damien Quigley recalled the hurt he felt when they lost to Loughgiel.
"That is undoubtedly my biggest regret. I think it took a couple of months for me personally to get over that loss. Maybe the idea that this was an Ulster team and might have been an easier draw got inside players' heads, but the record shows that Munster teams frequently lose to Ulster teams in the club championship, and we had tried to get this message across. I even photocopied an article that highlighted this and we talked about it beforehand. I remember watching the (All-Ireland) final, the goals going in, and thinking, we have really thrown this away."
Of the four clubs taking part in Thursday's finals, only Castlebar are what you might call traditional and old money, being one of the two big clubs in Mayo along with Ballina. Na Piarsaigh was founded in 1968 and only won their first county senior title in 2011; in the county final of 2009, their first appearance, they were destroyed by Adare, beaten by 17 points. Each time they've won Limerick, they've managed to add a provincial title and they've known that an All-Ireland is within their compass. If they do succeed they will become the first Munster winner since Newtownshandrum in 2004.
Cushendall was formed in the early 1900s but didn't win a senior championship until 1981, when Sambo McNaughton was on the team at 16. He is currently the team coach and has two sons involved. Getting to a final may be new ground but he regards winning as everything. "Before they left Navan that day (All-Ireland semi-final v Sarsfields) I told them of my experience of '89 (Antrim All-Ireland final appearance) and the one thing I learnt from it was that we ended up celebrating just getting to the final. But then we had nobody then who had done it before."
They have had some shaky moments along the way, like most teams, when after a few of those you maybe begin to think your name might be on it. The ironic thing is that arguably their easiest win was in the All-Ireland semi-final against Sarsfields. In Ulster they had a torrid challenge from Slaughtneil, only winning after extra-time. And through Antrim there were games where they needed everything to pull through. In the county final against Ballycastle they had to come from nine points down.
Ballyboden, who face Castlebar in the football final, is another relatively new club, having been founded in 1969. They also have lived dangerously, winning matches by the skin of their teeth in Dublin and needing a score deep into injury-time in the All-Ireland semi-final against Clonmel Commercials to stay in the competition. They have prospered from the huge population growth in south Dublin and field around 70 teams in different grades and codes. Hurling has brought them more success - six county senior titles to just three in football. But the football team has gone where no Ballyboden senior team has gone before in reaching an All-Ireland final. In their two previous expeditions outside the county they failed to reach even a provincial final.
Ballyboden are a massive club, with huge resources, but their county final win over St Vincent's could still be portrayed as a blow for the underdog, coming against a team that were reigning All-Ireland champions and the strongest of favourites to win the county. Their 27 county titles leave Ballyboden's three in the shade. Compared to a club like St Vincent's, Ballyboden are part of the nouveau riche.
Their opponents, Castlebar, are the direct opposite, around since 1885, and winners of 29 county championships. They have not been a strong presence beyond the county, however, with just four provincial titles and two of those in recent years. Their All-Ireland final appearance in 1994 is not a memory they relish, with Nemo Rangers in a different league and winning by 12 points. They know that won't happen now; they have a side capable of winning an All-Ireland. They are a serious bidder, the scalp of competition specialists Crossmaglen a testament of their credentials.
Castlebar have seen other Mayo clubs go on and achieve where they've fallen short, with Crossmolina successful in 2001 and Ballina reaching the pinnacle four years later. When Castlebar last contested an All-Ireland final they had a sprinkling of players from outside the town, but this crop are all home-grown, as are joint-managers Declan Shaw and Declan O'Reilly, former players at the club.
O'Reilly was recently asked if the prospect of an All-Ireland helped persuade him to get involved last year but he had to say it was not a factor. Winning a county was uppermost in their minds. Despite their stature within the county Castlebar had some troublingly lean years. Their county final win over Breaffy in 2013 marked their first success since 1993. O'Reilly was managing Breaffy at the time.
If Cushendall point to the county final loss to Loughgiel in 2013 as a game-changer, then Castlebar place similar stock on a county quarter-final loss to Charlestown in 2009. From there a fresh conviction emerged and the following season, they reached their first county final in 16 years. They've been in the county final every year since bar one. In the last decade, at their lowest point, the club played a number of seasons in the intermediate grade.
Their attitude has been transformed and the Castlebar of today no longer rests of the laurels of the past. John Maughan, centre-back in the 1994 All-Ireland club final, is part of a revolution in their underage set-up, being in charge of the minor team his own son plays for. There is a greater sense of community support behind the team than ever, recognising the progressive strides being made.
Clubs come in all forms, and this year's finalists represent a broad cross-section of the club community: rural, urban, new money, traditional. Of the four travelling to Croke Park on St Patrick's Day, though none has ever known what it is like to win an All-Ireland, the greatest potential for romance must reside with Cushendall.
Unlike the other three finalists, theirs is a constant struggle for numbers. They've all grown up, as Sambo McNaughton says, "within a mile of the pitch".
They have already made history in reaching an All-Ireland final. But winning is the only satisfying outcome. Like the other three final contestants, they know this chance may never come around again.
Sunday Indo Sport