Refusing to compromise dual ideals
Slaughtneil lead way for new breed of winning clubs that treat hurling and football as equals
By the time Mickey Moran emerged as a prospective manager of Slaughtneil, he knew they were serious contenders for the Derry senior football championship. They knew he could coax them over the final few yards. Only there was one pre-condition: pursuit of that goal would not be to the detriment of their other teams. Football has an exalted status in Derry but in Slaughtneil hurling and camogie had equal footing. That principle was not up for negotiation.
More than half of the Slaughtneil team aiming to win a second Ulster football title against Kilcoo this afternoon were on the side that created history recently in winning the provincial hurling championship. If winning the football title is a more laborious mission, it needs to be acknowledged that no Derry side had succeeded in hurling until Slaughtneil scaled that summit five weeks ago. Defeating Loughgiel Shamrocks, All-Ireland champions in 2012, placed a cherry on top.
"We just made it clear," club chairman Seán McGuigan explains of the time they first spoke to Moran, "that that's the way we were and we wanted to change it for nobody." A week before winning the Ulster hurling championship, the club claimed their third senior football title in a row, all achieved during Moran's tenure. His first season in 2014 also brought them a win in the province and a run to the All-Ireland final, where they were defeated by Corofin. But that success never blinded them.
Moran enjoys a healthy working relationship and regular close communication with the hurling team manager, Ballycastle native Michael McShane. "The work these players put in is immense," says McGuigan. "I remember after they won the Derry championship they went into a huddle in Celtic Park and Mickey said if anyone wanted a pint or two that night it was okay. But a few said they would be having no pint. They were playing an Ulster club hurling final the following week. After they lost to Cushendall last year they vowed they would come back and win it the next year. They blew Loughgiel away in the first 15 minutes.
"Outside of the eight players there's another ten subs who are dual players and many of those could be coming on against Kilcoo. When we took in outside managers it was the first thing that was said to them: we are dual club, you are in for a shock. Because it's difficult to manage the two but we meet the two managements every so often. Okay, there are problems surely. It does work. It is tough on the dual players. But our dual players are nearly our best players."
St Finbarr's of Cork is the only club to manage to win senior provincial club hurling and football titles in the same year, achieved in 1980, a feat which Slaughtneil is striving to emulate today. "If Slaughtneil win on Sunday," says McGuigan, "it might cause a wee bit of trouble but we will sit down with the managements again and plan. We still have 60 minutes to get through first. Our camogie team is in an All-Ireland semi-final as well, which is great achievement - we are a small club in a rural area."
In Mallow, The Nire will be seeking to create history by becoming the first Waterford club to win a Munster senior football title. All of the other five Munster counties have been there, with Clonmel Commercials adding an overdue maiden win for Tipperary last year. The Nire's sister club, Fourmilewater, is in another parish, though they share playing grounds and most of the same players.
In 2014 the two clubs agreed to appoint Benji Whelan as manager of the two senior teams. Since his arrival, the same selectors have also remained in place. Football, as in Slaughtneil, has brought them more success, but they treat their hurling duties with the same sincerity. "We have 12 starters on Sunday that have played senior hurling with Fourmilewater this year as well," says Whelan, who played senior football with his native Kilmacthomas. "There was little bit of to-ing and fro-ing between management groups prior to 2014 and the clubs were conscious that lads were being pulled left, right and centre. The idea was to bring it under one management group.
"I have a background in hurling and football, and this was my first management position. It is an awful lot of work. It is hard to balance the two. It is a line that you are trying to walk that is constantly moving depending on fixtures."
Last year Fourmilewater, featuring Jamie Barron and Conor Gleeson from the Waterford hurling side, reached the county championship semi-finals before losing to Ballygunner. The Nire went out at the same stage in the football championship.
In Whelan's first year the footballers won the county title and reached the Munster club final, losing narrowly to Austin Stacks after getting a dream start. The hurlers of Fourmilewater didn't make the knock-out stages. This year the hurlers reached the quarter-finals.
"When fellas get the bit between their teeth I think the involvement in both actually helps them," says Whelan. "It is well documented how many weeks we have been running. Being straight, it is very difficult to compete in a high-skilled game like hurling when playing some football during the year, there is no two ways about that, but in other ways the ruggedness that footballers bring to hurling is also an advantage maybe other hurling teams wouldn't have.
"Another fallacy is that you can pick up football any time of the year, that you don't need the same practice. You can play football - but not the level we require to get out of the county."
The two tribes work well together. "You have two separate clubs but the committees are made up of many of the same people. Each club has its own identity but they have a lot of common ground."
Whelan's task is made easier by the input of his selectors, Ger Peters, Paudie Halpin and Ger Walsh. They have also roped in Jerome Stack, a Listowel native who has hitched himself to the Tipperary football management set-up for next year. Stack found himself in a peculiar position when The Nire played in their last provincial final two years ago. He coached Stacks through the Kerry championship and also coached The Nire until they overcame Cratloe in the Munster semi-final. In the final he was obliged to side with Stacks. Today he will be firmly in the Waterford camp as they face Dr Crokes, the firm favourites.
"Looking at it objectively The Nire traditionally got to semi-finals of the senior championship almost routinely," says Whelan. "Fourmilewater have never reached a senior hurling final. Obviously hurling is the main game in Waterford and the hurling championship is a lot more difficult to win.
"There is a feeling that we should be there or thereabouts in the football and that we will do our level best in the hurling. That is one of the things we are trying to change, to produce that same desire to get to the final stages in the hurling. Especially as we have a lot of quality coming through from underage. Ideally my plan of action was to get to the hurling final by 2016; it hasn't happened that way.
"As far as the players are concerned I think they enjoy both codes. You will find a few who will like one more than the other but when they get together there's a buzz about them and they work well as a group."
Cratloe blazed a trail two years ago in becoming the first club in 85 years to win a Clare senior hurling and football championship double, relying heavily on dual players. That success was dependent on an excellent telepathy and mutual respect between the respective football and hurling managers, Colm Collins and Joe McGrath.
In the provincial championship Cratloe's hurlers defeated Ballygunner and Thurles Sarsfields, before going down in the final to Kilmallock after extra-time. A week earlier the footballers went out in the Munster football semi-final to The Nire after extra-time. Undoubtedly the strain of running both teams told but it was a risk they were prepared to take. It left them open to accusations of spreading themselves too thin.
That reservation is understandable but clubs make their own choices based on what they believe best serves their interests. "The day you get knocked out of either championship you are going to be thinking that way. I freely admit we get those feelings," says Whelan. "But I was brought in with a particular job to do. To try to elevate both together. There is no favouritism shown one way or the other. But those feelings would jump out at you when you do lose. Last year was one of those years when we were nearly-men twice. That can be frustrating. We have staunch football people, we have staunch hurling people, and they deserve to be treated equally."
Slaughtneil are keeping the dual torch lit in Ulster and will hope to have two teams vying for a place in an All-Ireland club final after today. Whatever the outcome, they remain unrepentant. "I saw clubs in Derry split over hurling and football," says the chairman, McGuigan. "I don't think it is good. If you can work with the two it's best."
Whelan can quote you chapter and verse after three years managing both hurling and football teams.
"There is no real model that works. It is pretty fluid," he explains. "The one rule we have adopted on the basis of our experience is that we simply ensure that during hurling weeks we do a bit of football - that might only be a warm-up with the ball. We would never go two weeks without doing the other code. And also I think when you introduce that it just freshens the thing a little bit."
Win or lose, they will continue adhering to those same principles. GAA clubs in the truest sense of the word.
Sunday Indo Sport