Thursday 25 April 2019

Historic first for Coolboy

Members of Coolboy Handball Club and supporters at the local alley on Monday night last to celebrate the All-Ireland Senor Club Championship victory
Members of Coolboy Handball Club and supporters at the local alley on Monday night last to celebrate the All-Ireland Senor Club Championship victory

Brendan Lawrence

Handball history was made last weekend when a team from Coolboy claimed their first ever All-Ireland Senior club crown when they got the better of Kerry's Glenbeigh in the final in Laois on Saturday afternoon.

Outside of the handball community in Wicklow this huge achievement might not have resonated but within that close-knit world the victory was akin to an earthquake.

On a painful 10 occasions over the years Coolboy have watched as talented teams have fallen in All-Ireland Senior club finals so the taste of success when Jerome Willoughby secured the title after a magnificent opening singles game from Michael Gregan and a sterling doubles performance from Michael Lennon and Johnny Willoughby was especially sweet given the heartbreak felt in the past.

Celebrations lasted long into the night on Saturday in the Little Moon where the victorious team were given a wonderful welcome but perhaps the real celebration was to be found in the local alley on Monday evening when well over 60 children turned up for training and dozens of handball supporters arrived to share in the sporting joy of an All-Ireland Senor crown coming back to the small village in south Wicklow.

It's in the children who turn up in their droves every week for training with Michael Gregan, James Gregan, Patricia Doyle and more that the full gravity of this achievement will be felt. Long after the back slapping and high praise has been forgotten after last weekend's heroics, it is the cementing of the game's legacy in Coolboy and its continually improving health within this proud community that will remain in the warm glow of this magnificent success.

Stepping through the door of the Little Moon pub on Saturday night was like setting foot inside your best friend's house. Firm handshakes and appreciatory nods were the call of the day and commands to put the wallet back in the pocket were issued from the star of the show Michael Gregan who defeated Dominic Lynch in the opening game of the All-Ireland final only hours before hand.

A text on the phone moments after the presentation showed a photo of that all-Ireland medal and the words, '22 years training for this'. Michael Gregan isn't one for wanting to hog the limelight in interviews and perhaps that's all he really needs to say.

There were, however, numerous people willing to have a chat with the local paper in the Little Moon. We are ushered to a quiet room where handball legends Richard Willoughby and Pat Doyle are joined by current team member Johnny Willoughby to discuss the events of the day and what it means for the club.

'We've been very involved with handball through the county and All-Irelands and world championships and all, but we have never won an All-Ireland Senor Club Championship before and I'd like to congratulate Johnny Willoughby, Jerome Willoughby, Michael Lennon, Michael Gregan and Keith Kavanagh for what is a great achievement for our club,' said Pat Doyle who, like Michael Gregan earlier in the day, went to bat for his team first.

'We're very proud to be part of the Coolboy club for so many years and we've looked forward to winning this club championship and I think it's fabulous,' he added.

'I think this was the ultimate thing to win today - a Senior title,' said Richard Willoughby. 'We've been trying for years and it just hasn't come. We've won Juniors and novices and even back in the 1980s we won a club championship. But I think that a club championship involving a lot of players is better than an All-Ireland singles because it is a team effort and it's the ultimate to win that,' he added.

Johnny Willoughby, who joined Michael Lennon in the doubles section of the all-Ireland final against Jack O'Shea and Rory O'Connor said that they stuck to their routine of sending in their strongest player first and that while it hadn't worked at times it paid dividends today with Gregan getting off to a flying start.

What we'd normally do when we play is try and put our strongest players in early and Michael (Gregan) is our best player, he's currently ranked number five in Ireland. He always gives us, I suppose myself and Michael (Lennon) would be playing second in the doubles and he'd (Michael Gregan) always give us a bit of a lead going in. The way it works is that you're playing for 30 points each game, that's the first singles, the doubles and the last singles so you can have a total of 90 to win it, so Michael left us up by 15 points after the first game. Then myself and Michael Lennon went in and, I suppose, I'd be predominantly a doubles player and so would Michael (Lennon), we'd see ourselves as strong doubles players while Jerome would be a strong singles player and we left him until the last game and we left him needing six aces to get out of the 30 and he was able to deliver that, he got 15 so he had some to spare,' he said.

'That's kind of the way we've done it over the years. Sometimes it hasn't worked, we've came up against some of the best handballers the country has ever seen. We've played Meath loads of times, Dublin loads of times, there were multiple Senior All-Ireland champions on those teams.

'It's always been really tough for us over the years. We missed it for a couple of years. Michael (Gregan) got injured a couple of years ago and we didn't enter a team, we just wouldn't have had the players either I suppose. We've been running a league up in the alley for the last few Christmases and I think those games helped us this year and we were a bit more prepared. We just played well in the games we had to play,' he added.

Glenbeigh were a formidable outfit, featuring three world champions. But it was to be Coolboy's day.

'There were three world champions in the Glenbeigh team, they only won them in October at the world championships so I'd say they were feeling confident enough, and rightly so, but, again, with Michael (Gregan) going in, and he's back in form again, and that probably helped us a lot and it built our confidence to go in there with a 15 lead. Myself and Michael (Lennon) were able to extend that as well and we were able to leave it that bit easier for Jerome and he was able to deliver on that in the end,' said Johnny.

'We're fierce proud of what we have achieved today (Saturday). We have played in, I'm 33, we've played in them for 15 years no, we haven't won it so it's nice to finally get that championship,' he added.

Pat Doyle said that Michael Gregan's good form of late filled the team and supporters with great confidence.

'We were very confident because Michael was playing so well, it gave the rest of the team a great confidence, because Dominic Lynch is about seventh in Ireland at the moment and to beat Dominic 15/12, 15/3 was a great achievement altogether, and it gave Michael (Lennon) and Johnny going in in the doubles a great boost altogether,' he said.

There had been concern over Michael Gregan after he pickede up a shoulder injury at the Golden Gloves in Belfast last week. Richard Willoughby said that the injury was still there bnut that Gregan played through the pain barrier.

'He had hurt his shoulder in Belfast. He threw everything at it today. He went through the pain barrier, at one stage you could see him wincing. He definitely done well. He got into the game early, usually he's a slow starter, but he got in early today and dominated the game,' he added.

Coolboy has a massive tradition and history in the sport of handball. Michael Lennon's first juvenile All-Ireland win is where it all began for this group says Richard Willoughby.

'It started back in the early 90s when we were winning a few Féile at the time. Even Michael Lennon, who would be the oldest on that team today, he won an All-Ireland, our first juvenile title, back in 1997 I think it was, that was our first juvenile title other than Féile, we'd never won individual titles before that. So, that's how long it's coming, maybe 20 years at least. They've reached the top today,' he said.

On Monday night, supporters and club members turned up in healthy numbers to toast the wonderful success.

Former member Pat Quaile from Tinahely was there and he recalled 10 All-Ireland finals (five 40x20 and five 60x30) that he was apart of where Coolboy teams were beaten in nthe deciders. The handball legend said that Saturday's win was a huge moment for Wicklow handball and one that should be celebrated near and far.

Coolboy Handball Club secretary James Gregan said that it was a long road to victory with wins over Carlow's Tinryland and Kells of Meath in Leinster and a Tyrone club in the All-Ireland semi-final before downing Glenbeigh in the final.

Club member Paddy Lennon saud the win was a wonderful achievment and that it had put Coolboy Handball Club back on the handball map in a big way.

Bray People