Friday 9 December 2016

Eighteen years after last All-Ireland semi-final experience, Sarsfields aim to write their own history

Christy O'Connor

Published 06/02/2016 | 02:30

Joseph Cooney lifts the cup after Sarsfields’ victory in the Galway SHC final replay last November Photo: Sportsfile
Joseph Cooney lifts the cup after Sarsfields’ victory in the Galway SHC final replay last November Photo: Sportsfile
Joseph's legendary father Joe (l) in action during the 1994 All-Ireland club final

When the Sarsfields players gradually filtered back to their dressing-room in Pearse Stadium after last year's county final replay, the mood was completely calm. Nobody sang. No-one cried. There was no roaring or shouting or squirting water. There was no mass explosion of emotion, just a deep inhalation of the sweet taste of success.

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Sarsfields were priced at 50/1 to win the title at the outset of the season but when they defied those huge odds, their reaction was governed by a historical lineage, a deep connection to the past.

Most of the squad were only children when Sarsfields won their last county title in 1997 but they could remember that day. Winning county titles was a culture which had always framed Sarsfields' identity.

Although the club hadn't even reached a county final for 13 years, or even made it to a county quarter-final in ten years, playing in a county final was a natural experience once the team got there.

Pressure never enveloped the group. Expectation was warmly embraced. Their fathers, uncles and neighbours had grown up in that environment of expecting to win. Following that legacy was this generation's destiny.

Bazooka

That tradition was completely apparent in the drawn county final against Craughwell when Sarsfields were staring down the barrel of a bazooka at the beginning of the second half. Just two points ahead with 25 minutes to play and facing a near hurricane, Sarsfields dug in and never let Craughwell away from them.

Crucially, they also had that iron-proof confidence that they could finish the job. "It's a different era," said Francis Madden, selector and trainer, after the replay. "But these lads have that Sarsfields spirit of old and you need that to win."

Sarsfields had momentum behind them all season. They blitzed Beagh in their opening group match in April. In a tight group, Sarsfields still needed to beat Tynagh/Abbey/Duniry in their penultimate group game to stay in contention for qualification.

They trailed by eight points late on but they somehow scrambled a raft of scores deep into injury time to eke out a one-point victory.

They had already qualified for the quarter-finals before their last group match but they still shipped 2-22 against Loughrea. Sarsfields had coughed up 3-14 against Tynagh/Abbey/Duniry. When they brought in the highly respected coach John Hardiman before the quarter-final, improving their defence was Hardiman's starting point.

Huge structural changes were made to the side. Kevin Hynes had been playing wing-forward. Joseph Cooney had been lining out at midfield. Hynes returned to the defence, Cooney took up station in the half-forward line.

Cooney gave the side a whole new outlet, especially as a puck-out option, but Sarsfields were a completely different team with Hynes patrolling their defence.

Hynes provided more than just presence; he was a general who organised a defence which was transformed from porous to water-tight.

In their final four games against Padraig Pearses, Gort and Craughwell, they didn't concede a single goal. They only coughed up a handful of goal opportunities.

Sarsfields don't have anything like the firepower of some crack Galway champions of the past two decades but few Galway club teams have. And once they became harder to beat, they had a chance.

Sarsfields don't have the marquee names of other clubs either. Cooney was the only player on the Galway squad for last September's All-Ireland final but he provided huge leadership when it was required in the replay.

In the first half alone, he scored one goal and was fouled for four converted frees. He also provided the mobility they had been craving in that sector.

Once the business end of the season arrived, Sarsfields' focus was unwavering. Gort were installed as favourites for the All-Ireland before the Galway semi-finals. The reigning champions raced into an early 0-5 to 0-1 lead and looked set to run away with the match but the East Galway side held their nerve to win by four.

A magnificent and unlikely journey was completed a month later. In his acceptance speech after the final, Cooney paid tribute to his team-mates and management, who he said had taken over a team that nobody else particularly wanted.

When they couldn't get a manager at the outset of 2015, corner-back Cathal Murray put his hand up and took on the role of player-manager.

Murray won a county medal as a sub in 1995. Ronan Quinn was part of the 1997 success. Sarsfields reached finals again in 2000 and 2002 and then the good times ended.

Sarsfields is a rural club where the numbers game and the generation game defines everything but their struggles for the guts of a decade had still hung over the club like a pall of dead air. They diced with relegation on occasions. They were never a threat to the big guns. The 2014 season was effectively a write-off.

Gradually, the pieces came together. They had won a county minor title in 2004 and two U-21s in 2006 and 2008, which provided the framework for the current side. More importantly, they had tradition and pedigree.

Legendary

Joseph and Kevin Cooney are sons of the legendary Joe Cooney. Niall Morrissey's father Noel Morrissey featured in all of Sarsfields' previous six county title wins between 1980 and 1997. Ivan Kenny is a son of Tommy Kenny. Kerril Wade's father, Benny, was on the Sarsfields side which first broke the mould in 1980. Growing up, Wade had always seen his father's county medal in the sitting room at home. Now he has his own.

Sarsfields will always be a revered name in club hurling because they were the first club to win successive All-Irelands in 1993 and 1994. This generation are intent on making their own history but the club still continues to follow the traditions and pathways set before them.

After the county final in November, the squad returned to the Community Centre in Bullaun. They didn't want to convene in a pub area. The players wanted to meet the young people, to inspire them just like they had been inspired and shaped by the hurlers before them.

Fifty years on from Sarsfields' foundation, the generation game keeps rolling on.

Irish Independent

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