Saturday 22 April 2017

Exiles driving Kildare hurling revival

Lilywhites are boosting their small-ball stock by taking advantage of GAA residency rules

John Mulhall assesses his options for Kilkenny in the 2012 Walsh Cup final. The 28-year-old made his debut for Kildare in the same competition last week in a two-point defeat to Offaly. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
John Mulhall assesses his options for Kilkenny in the 2012 Walsh Cup final. The 28-year-old made his debut for Kildare in the same competition last week in a two-point defeat to Offaly. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

At first John Mulhall figured it was a prank call. Around New Year's Eve he was contacted by Joe Quaid, the former Limerick goalkeeper, who is in his second season managing Kildare. "I thought it was a few lads from home just taking the mickey out of me," says Mulhall, recalling the moment his hurling career took an unexpected twist. He made his first appearance in the all-white strip in the Walsh Cup last Sunday when Kildare almost defeated Offaly.

Mulhall, who lives in Naas and teaches in Dublin, continues to hurl with his home club, St Martin's. He won an All-Ireland medal in 2011 with Kilkenny but was released from the panel the following year after Kilkenny won the National League, his last appearance being as a substitute for Michael Fennelly in the second half of the league final against Cork. His main reservation about declaring for Kildare centred around whether or not he would be up to it.

Ultimately, the offer was too tempting to refuse. "I kind of said, 'Ah sure I am 28 now, I will never get a chance with Kilkenny again'."

For Kildare, it made sense. Quaid initially hoped to draw his squad exclusively from home-grown players but with a number of hurlers unavailable, including their leading marksman Gerry Keegan, who is travelling, and some not willing to commit, he felt he had little choice but to look beyond the county's borders.

Counties competing in the Christy Ring and lower ranks are allowed bring in players from MacCarthy Cup participants provided they fit residency criteria. Mulhall is joined in Kildare by the Limerick brothers David and Mike Reidy, who are former senior county panellists. David Reidy made an appearance in the championship as a substitute for Limerick last year and is living and teaching in Kildare. He scored eight points against Offaly a week ago, in only his second appearance for his adopted county. Mulhall scored two, playing in midfield.

Kildare's greatest hurling achievement of recent times was their Christy Ring win in 2014 but they lost to Westmeath in a play-off the following weekend, at a time when winning the Christy Ring didn't gain you automatic promotion to the MacCarthy Cup like it does now. In the National League, they keep the likes of Carlow and Westmeath company in the third tier, having needed a win over Derry in their last match in 2016 to avoid relegation.

The players don't want for anything in terms of facilities, with use of the Hawkfield training centre, and an impressive management team assembled by Quaid. There are small signs here and there which indicate some level of penetration in the direction of hurling's inner circle. Celbridge were cruelly beaten with two late goals in the Leinster intermediate hurling final last year by Carrickshock and Kildare underage teams are competing impressively in Kilkenny leagues where they are allowed take part.

Reaching Division 1B of the league and winning the Christy Ring are the county team's realistic goals in the years ahead. Whether they can build the necessary foundation to sustain a more ambitious rise and come to be counted in the top dozen counties in the country remains to be seen.

The county enjoyed a brief glimpse of the big time in the 1970s when taking Offaly to a replay in the Leinster Championship, in 1975, then defeating Dublin the following summer and coming within four points of Wexford in the Leinster semi-final. Even then they had some outside aid: their top scorer against Wexford with 0-12, six points from play, was a Wexford native living in Kildare, John Murphy.

As often happens, it proved a false dawn. They defeated Westmeath in the Leinster Championship the next year, before losing by 22 points to Wexford, and by 12 points the following year to Offaly. In 1979, they withdrew from the Leinster Championship. During that period of relative prosperity Kildare player Johnny Walsh earned a replacement All-Star and his club, Ardclough, beat Buffer's Alley in the 1976 Leinster club championship.

Mulhall isn't the only Kilkenny man now lending assistance to Kildare's cause. Their goalkeeper Paul Dermody has been hurling for Kildare for ten years since moving to work and live in the county. He joined éire óg-Corrachoill from his native Graigue-Ballycallan, having been part of their run to the All-Ireland club final in 2001.

Dermody settled in when Andy Comerford was manager for a few years in the last decade. "I would not have known much about Kildare hurling," he says. "It has stepped up every year. The real change was winning that Christy Ring, it was huge, it really brought the hurling community together. It is my most cherished medal, even though I got to a club All-Ireland with Graigue-Ballycallan. The work that went into winning that Christy Ring! You win a club title with Kilkenny and you nearly take it for granted."

He is 37 now and still loves it. "There is a lot of talk in the press about sacrifice. I hate the word sacrifice, because, yeah, there are sacrifices to be made but aren't they fantastic? We train four times a week and everything is mapped out for us. The GAA could do more though. Hurling people will watch hurling matches and they should put our games on before bigger matches to allow more people see these counties. There are some really good players in Kildare. I trained with Eddie Brennan and I would say the best hurler I have ever trained with apart from him is Gerry Keegan."

But Dermody isn't playing for an audience. "I love hurling," he states, "I love goalkeeping, that is what drives me. That's the buzz I get out of it."

Kilkenny's Willie O'Dwyer transferred to Kerry in 2012 after taking up residency and employment there. Denis Byrne created a bigger sensation when he hooked up with the Tipperary hurling team in 2003 after losing his place on the Kilkenny county squad. In the 1990s Eamonn Morrissey, MJ Ryan and Jamesie Brennan switched allegiance from Kilkenny to Dublin. The former All-Ireland medal winner, David Kennedy, gave a few years to Kildare in the latter end of his career, while still playing with his home club in Tipperary. In most cases the prospects of facing their own county are extremely slim, if not non-existent.

"They have raised the standard for everybody," says Quaid of Kildare's new recruits. "The guys want to play hurling, that was the overriding factor in the whole lot of it. Obviously they would prefer to be appearing at a higher level. I pitched it at them that it was a decent standard and there was the carrot of maybe playing in Croke Park in the Christy Ring Cup."

Mulhall believed his prospects of hurling in Croke Park again had vanished. The prospect of playing there one more time partly influenced his decision to try Kildare. "To play there my club would have to get to an All-Ireland final," he explains. "A one-in-a-million chance."

His only apprehension was fitness related. "Lads are looking after themselves more and I have been away from it so long and not having played in so long, that was my major worry. I could be blown out of it.

"It's a challenge and I didn't want to have any regrets in years to come if I had said no. The opportunity came up. If you are 28 and you have no real commitment what else would your decision be other than to play?"

John Doran, joint-captain of Kildare along with Dermody, hurls for Leixlip and is now 30. "I would see it as a positive," he says of the players coming in. "When they buy into it and give everything it brings on the whole thing. For the lads who are there to have the extra quality around, it's fantastic."

He says the current management set-up is the most professional in his time hurling with Kildare. Doran played hurling and football up to college, representing his county in both codes. At DIT he ended up playing Fitzgibbon hurling and was won over, turning down an invite to a trial for the under 21 county football team.

He remembers advice from his father when he was younger and unsure which path to follow. "He told me, you can't pick where you are from, all you can do is play the best for who you play for. I took that attitude with me for years. I love it. I love playing for Kildare."

His ambition is to play for Kildare in the Leinster hurling championship. But more immediately, there is the opening round of the league on February 12 in Armagh. The hurlers' feet are fairly on the ground. 

Against all odds

Kerry sink Déise

In 1993, Kerry went to Walsh Park and defeated raging favourites Waterford in the Munster Hurling Championship. Waterford had won the All-Ireland under 21 title the previous year and fully expected to earn a semi-final shot at Tipperary. “Somebody started ‘The Rose of Tralee’ and everyone joined in and there was a massive sing-song,” recalled Maurice Leahy, a Kerry selector. “We nearly rose the roof off the dressing rooms. It was great.”

Meath beat Laois

In 2002, Meath, managed by Michael Duignan, caused a shock when defeating Laois in the Leinster Championship. At Navan, a goal from Mickey Cole in injury time earned them a place in the quarter-finals, where they lost to Dublin. The previous year Laois had defeated Meath in the championship by 15 points. Last year Meath had a memorable Christy Ring Cup success, overcoming Antrim in the final after extra-time. They take part in the Leinster Championship round robin this season as a result. 

Mount Leinster Rangers

Carlow hurling hasn’t had much to shout about over the years. They were given a brief taste of the good life in 2013 when Mount Leinster Rangers created history by winning the Leinster club senior hurling title. In the provincial final they overcame favourites Oulart-The Ballagh and went on to reach the All-Ireland final on St Patrick’s Day, losing to Portumna.

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