Tuesday 24 October 2017

Wicklow hope daunting home venue can claim another Ulster victim as Armagh make scenic trek over mountains

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When the Irish International Rules selectors met up in a Dublin hotel late on Saturday night, Kevin O'Brien had some gentle ribbing for the Armagh strength and conditioning coach Mike McGurn, who performs the same role with Ireland.

Still smarting from Armagh's inability to close the deal against a Division 4 side, McGurn was offered a special welcoming reception by Wicklow's most famous football son for the return trip seven days later to arguably the most rural GAA ground in the country.

"I offered to meet Mike in Baltinglass and take him over the narrow winding road. I told him we'd put up the 'welcome to hell' signs," joked O'Brien.

It may not exactly amount to a trip to Galatasaray or Fenerbahce but Aughrim, nestled deep in picturesque south Wicklow at the confluence of several mountain valleys, does have its own sense of foreboding for travelling GAA teams. Perhaps sharing a name with a famous Irish battle adds something to the intrigue.

It is where a Wicklow senior football team can come alive on championship afternoons and evenings.

unique

Aughrim is perhaps unique in that it is a county ground that is not situated in one of the bigger towns in Wicklow. Only Clones, Monaghan's main pitch, could be comparable. All the other counties have their main ground in a centre of population.

Away from the main towns along the eastern sea board and the necklace of smaller towns to the west of the mountains closer to Kildare and Carlow, it has been home to Wicklow GAA since the 1930s when a local business family let the land for a nominal fee. For Wicklow it was the best bet at the time.

There were speculative moves to centralise a venue at a more convenient location to the main artery running through the county during better economic times, but it's to Aughrim that Wicklow GAA has stayed loyal.

It is where, if he ever gets to compile a final audit of a magnificent career, Mick O'Dwyer will surely detail some of his finest moments in management.

"You know I've never lost a championship match as a manager in Aughrim," beamed O'Dwyer after Wicklow's shock draw with Armagh in Morgan Athletic Grounds last Saturday night.

The loss of James Stafford, their towering presence for so much of that match, will dampen the soaring belief that such a record can be preserved.

But the myth of Aughrim will be inescapable for the Armagh team and supporters when they turn off the N11 and begin the winding ascent over the edge of the mountains to the venue where three of their provincial counterparts ran aground in 2009 -- including Down, who contested an All-Ireland final just 14 months later.

It is the equivalent to how club and county teams felt about going to Crossmaglen for games in the past. A win was always possible but was made a bit harder because of the myth.

"Let's not be mistaken, we've lost championship games there in the past but we like to use it to our advantage. We have a very good record there," says O'Brien, who was just 19 when the myth of Aughrim really grew legs and ran.

That was of course the GAA's very own 'Battle of Aughrim', the infamous 1986 Leinster championship clash between the hosts and the reigning league champions Laois.

Only five weeks earlier Laois had beaten Monaghan in that league final and to warm up for Aughrim they trimmed the reigning All-Ireland champions Kerry in a challenge to inaugurate O'Moore Park. Aughrim then would be a mere tick in a box for them.

Over 12,000 rolled into the town on that hot June Sunday afternoon and the atmosphere was raucous.

There was no perimeter fencing in Aughrim in those days, precious little health and safety regulations and the crowd were stacked up around the sidelines and on the banks around the ground within easy access of the pitch. A Laois request for a change of venue was refused by Leinster Council.

Twenty five years on O'Brien still remembers the atmosphere vividly, even before he got to the ground.

"We were getting rubbed down in the 'cattleyard' which was beside the local hotel. The crowd around it was incredible. There was a real atmosphere in the ground. Wicklow had a strong team at the time, men like Pat O'Byrne, and playing on a tight pitch suited us."

By the end of the match Laois had lost by four points and not one of their six starting forwards remained on the field. Three were sent off, one was carried off and two more were taken off!

One of the local Laois newspapers subsequently ran a headline that their team had been "provoked, barracked and finally beaten in the simmering cauldron of Aughrim."

Contrary to popular perception it wasn't really a bloodbath, according to O'Brien.

"It was more the atmosphere really. Both sides had a player each (Willie Brennan of Laois and Nick O'Neill of Wicklow) sent off early on but I didn't remember it as a particularly dirty game. I knew a lot of those Laois players from playing Railway Cup with them," he recalls.

O'Brien has enjoyed many other great days at the venue. There was a league win over Cork and an 1990 All-Ireland club semi-final win over a Castlehaven team powered by Larry Tompkins and Niall Cahalane to savour on their way to an All-Ireland title.

In 2001 Galway won there on their way to their last All-Ireland title but eight years later O'Dwyer oversaw a trilogy of qualifier victories on successive Saturdays over Ulster opposition.

First Fermanagh, then Cavan and finally Down were put the sword and sent back across the winding roads with nothing but the scenery to cheer them. This year Sligo endured the same fate.

Maybe Aughrim is a little bit of a myth. But for now Wicklow and the rest of the GAA world are happy to peddle it.

Irish Independent

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