Fingal Independent

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'It was great while it lasted'

GAA reflections on the Fingal hurling project that led to an All-Ireland final

You can never fully appreciate the expanse of the Croke Park pitch until you enter it. Like the Tardis, it looks a lot smaller from the outside.

As such June 7th 2014 was a big day for the Fingal hurlers as they took on Tyrone in the Nicky Rackard decider at GAA headquarters.

A year previously Mick Kennedy's charges had taken on Fermanagh at the same venue in a Division 3A league encounter, but this would prove to be the real deal.

That season marked Fingal's return to championship action and they rewarded the county board's faith in them by getting to the final for the first time following two-point wins over Louth and Donegal.

Lining out at wing back that day against Tyrone in the decider was St Patrick's Donabate's hurler Bryan Kelly.

The secondary school teacher, who turned 40 last month, had been handed the captaincy by Kennedy in the Kehoe Cup opener against DCU in January 2013.

'It came completely out of the blue,' he recalled. 'I had been training with lads who had been around the panel for the last couple of years and you know they were really strong hurlers.'

Donabate, who are 10 years in existence, were one of a number of clubs to be recognised with call-ups by Kennedy as he sought to cast his net wide.

'Mick put a different stamp on things and I think what he was saying was, there's a new management on board this year. He reached out to a lot of clubs and he was willing to give everyone a shot and he did that throughout his whole term, bringing in players.'

However Kelly insisted that for all the experimentation, continuity remained strong under Kennedy's reign.

'In fairness he always had a strong core of players. You know, the likes of Niall Ring, Ross McGarry, the Sheridan brothers, so they were always there - really good hurlers - and every now and then he would have changed things up, gave lads a shot in cup matches and league matches.'

Kelly had trained at St Pat's College, Drumcondra, along with Ring, and as such it gave him great satisfaction to be honoured alongside Ring (JM Sheridan was also recognised for his sterling work up front) in the Nicky Rackard Cup Team of the Year in 2014.

'Niall was just a natural hurler. He did stuff that was amazing. You're wondering how he was able to come out with the ball with a ruck of players beside him, and he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.'

Ring had been detailed to mark Damien Casey in the Nicky Rackard decider, the Tyrone captain having come into the final with an impressive 0-21 under his belt.

Yet the Red Hand county could consider themselves lucky to be in front at half-time, 1-8 to 0-10, after Fingal goalkeeper Hillary Murray Hession had fumbled a sideline ball played in by Tiernan Morgan, allowing Tiernan Morgan the simplest of tap-ins.

However, Kelly believed Murray Hession's slip-up should not overshadow in any way what was a distinguishing career between the posts.

'Ah look, your heart goes out to Hillary. He was probably the best hurler that Fingal has produced for a long number of years. To say he fumbled the ball would have taken the game out of context. We wouldn't have been in the final without Hillary you know. In every game he gave 100 per cent.'

Tyrone would press on in the second half, and through Casey's deadball expertise they had built up an eight-point lead heading into the final quarter, but Fingal rallied and a goal from David Smyth left them just a point short as Tyrone prevailed 1-17 to 1-16.

Kelly believes that with a bit more time Fingal might have sneaked the win.

'I felt we were fighting back well and I think if the game had gone for another two or three minutes we could have at least got the draw and we should have gone on and won the game.'

Players talking about competing in finals like these often speak of games passing them by, but Kelly still has some strong memories of the game.

'In terms of myself. I remember a ball came in from JM and going up the field and hitting it wide, and you're thinking to yourself you're playing for your county and you have the chance to stick it over the bar.

'But look, to get out there was something special. Looking back on it, to be hurling with Pat's Donabate and to go on to play in an all-Ireland final in Croke Park was an achievement.'

Two seasons later it was all over as Dublin County Board called time on the Fingal hurling project, something which disappointed Kelly.

'I was a firm believer in the Fingal hurling project. You know, the standard of play was raised and it brought back good habits to the club from those who had played with Fingal, and I look at all the clubs who were promoted while the Fingal thing was still going,' he concluded.

Fingal Independent