Gleeson's underdogs refusing to lie down
IT HAS already been a magical year for Tipperary hurling, but Conor Gleeson and Clonoulty-Rossmore are hoping to put their own fairytale finish to it this weekend.
Gleeson freely admits that if he wasn't involved in tomorrow's county final as Clonoulty's coach, he'd probably be shouting for their opponents -- defending champions Thurles Sarsfields.
"I live in Thurles and you couldn't but admire Sarsfields: they're a fantastic side and they came up against another one in Toomevara over a lot of years recently," said the former Tipp captain and 2001 All-Ireland winner.
But Gleeson (37) is firmly in the undisputed underdogs' camp this weekend, fervently hoping they can pull off a big shock in a showpiece that will bring Tipperary's magnificent hurling year to a climax.
"This is a massive day for the parish -- this is only Clonoulty's fifth county final ever," he said.
There was a particularly long wait between two of the club's three previous senior titles: their first was won in 1888 and the second didn't arrive until 1989.
"They won it again in 1997 and lost the final to Toome by two points the following year -- which was their last final -- so that's why this is such a huge occasion for us," Gleeson explained.
It was his old Tipperary team-mate -- and Clonoulty legend -- Declan Ryan who persuaded Gleeson to get involved two seasons ago.
Despite living less than eight miles away, Gleeson played all his club hurling in the Mid-division for his native Boherlahan until a career-ending cruciate injury in 2007.
He already had four years experience training an intermediate club and Clonoulty have been threatening a breakthrough.
They won their fourth 'West' title in a row this year and, in 2008, they not only took Sarsfields to a replay in the county semi-final, it took the 'townies' extra-time to beat them the second day.
In Timmy Hammersley and John Devane, they have current and recent county seniors and the talented John O'Neill would surely have starred with Tipp's seniors this summer were it not for a cruciate injury.
The skilful forward recovered in time to play a regular role off the bench for Tipp's All-Ireland winning U-21s; another local on that victorious underage panel was Thomas Butler, younger brother of Aidan -- who was on that 2001 All-Ireland winning squad with Ryan and Gleeson.
He's a pivotal figure in Clonoulty's attack and is not to be confused with yet another Butler: team captain and first cousin Tom who, at just 29, is the team elder.
"The average age is probably 23; we have loads of ability and good young players but they sometimes make it difficult for themselves and for us on the sideline," Gleeson joked.
After winning the divisional title, they beat Burgess and then Kildangan -- thanks to a vital Fiachra O'Keeffe goal and some good late saves from Declan O'Dwyer -- but accept that they are rank underdogs against Sarsfields.
"It isn't just that they have the Hurler of the Year (Lar Corbett) and players like Padraic Maher, Michael Cahill and Pa Bourke -- virtually every one on their team has inter-county experience," Gleeson notes.
Sarsfields have also come through the tougher side of the draw, having to dispense with Loughmore-Castleiney and Toomevara, though they are without the suspended Ger 'Redser' O'Grady for the final.
"But the way we have to look at it is that it's 12 years since we got here and we don't know when we'll get the chance again," said Gleeson.
"There's 28 or 30 teams in Tipperary who'd give their right arm to be where we are on Sunday and the other thing is, look at Galway and Kilkenny this season, where Portumna and Shamrocks were both ousted.
"There's no rule that underdogs can't win, so we'll certainly be giving it everything we've got."