Monday 19 March 2018

Croan's finals romance with dream date on Valentine's Day

Valentine's All-Ireland final was not on radar of excited community

St Croan's supporters prepare for their All-Ireland final
St Croan's supporters prepare for their All-Ireland final

Dermot Crowe

'It's going to be one hell of a week in Ballintubber," promised the captain of St Croan's, Gregory Grogan, when they won the 2014 Roscommon intermediate football championship in October. They also won the intermediate title in 2009, so he may have been speaking from experience, but in truth he didn't know the half of it. The celebrations in store for the players and all connected would run much longer than a week. The story was only beginning.

Now, four months on, the captain is refining his lines without wishing to tempt fate. They find themselves at the gates of Croke Park for an All-Ireland final against Kerry's Ardfert next Saturday. That it falls on St Valentine's Day seems wholly apt. They are in a kind of wonderland and have been on an odyssey since landing the county title, going on to win the Connacht championship and then, in a hair-raising All-Ireland semi-final, defeating Louth's Seán O'Mahonys to claim their dream date.

It is not the biggest club game of the day; it can't pretend otherwise. The All-Ireland champions, St Vincent's, are meeting a highly-regarded Corofin in the senior semi-final, a game that has VIP status and is undoubtedly the pick of the day. It could turn out to be the club match of the year. But for a team like St Croan's to be heading to Jones's Road for an All-Ireland final is bordering on fantasy. Corofin have been there before. St Vincent's have too. Even Ardfert have been in two All-Ireland finals, winning the junior version in 2006 and adding the intermediate a year later.

The junior and intermediate club championships have been running a little over 10 years and have given obscure clubs, the very epitome of small and remote, a shot at the big time. Croke Park on St Valentine's Day will see St Croan's and Ardfert do battle in the late afternoon, under the hot lights, while the curtain-raiser is a junior final contest between another Kerry team, Brosna, and John Mitchels from Liverpool.

It is indicative of the competition's innocence that after winning the semi-final against Rock St Patrick's from Tyrone, the Brosna manager Jimmy Keane referred to their impending final opponents as "the boys from England" - admitting that he knew nothing about them. He'll have picked up a bit more since then, naturally. John Mitchels proudly boast the distinction of being the only men's Gaelic football club outside of Ireland to contest an All-Ireland football final, that being their 2009 junior meeting with Skellig Rangers from Kerry, which they lost by a point.

The Lancashire region is also toasting the feat of Fullen Gaels in reaching the All-Ireland junior hurling final, where they face a formidable challenge from Bennettsbridge on Sunday next. The intermediate hurling final the same afternoon also involves a team from outside the island. Kilburn Gaels, the self-declared "biggest and most vibrant" hurling club in London, prepare to meet O'Donovan Rossa of Antrim, who contested an All-Ireland senior club final 26 years ago. Kilburn Gaels is the only club in London to field at all grades from under-eight up to senior.

Big and vibrant is not what you would associate with St Croan's, drawn from the parishes of Ballintubber and Ballymoe. They are managed by the former Roscommon footballer David Casey, who was forced to retire from playing due to knee injuries. He arrived from Boyle over a year ago with the sole intention of providing a good organisational structure and making them hard to beat. Ending up in an All-Ireland final was not on the radar.

"You never dream of an All-Ireland final in Croke Park," he says. "You would be hoping when you take it on to get to your own county final, but it has just kept building and building. We were not fancied to beat Ballyhaunis (in the provincial semi-final), but we won and were in the Connacht final. Again, we were underdogs against Killannin from Galway. In the All-Ireland semi-final, we were fortunate really. Look it's fairytale stuff. I am from Boyle, which would be a bigger town. This is the last place you would expect would be in an All-Ireland final. Football is everything. They are all involved.

"I think it's fantastic. You have a club here who might not have the population or the firepower to compete at senior level (St Croan's were relegated from the senior league in 2014). It's a great chance to expose players to bigger occasions. Like, here you have a village of 600 people and now 40 of them have Connacht medals and will play in an All-Ireland final."

The community has been thinking of little else. A song has been composed to grace the occasion. There are people coming back from all parts of the globe for what Casey describes as a "once in a lifetime" opportunity. The sponsor, Michael Holland Tyres, will get unimaginable bang for its buck, a backer since 1997 that never expected much in return. "It's an absolutely wonderful achievement for the club," says Mr Holland, who has a son on the team. "We are a small club really, a very small rural club, and for us to get to an All-Ireland final is a serious achievement."

Majella Smyth, the club secretary, says the decision to appoint Casey was a new departure in going outside the club. If there were reservations initially, there are fewer, if any, now. The All-Ireland intermediate and junior hurling finals offer similar narratives the following day. In 2012, Mount Leinster Rangers won the intermediate final, narrowly against Middletown of Armagh, and used that to launch a successful challenge on the Leinster senior title a year later. There were wins for Clonkill of Westmeath in 2008 and London's Robert Emmetts in 2007, but the rest of the titles have been mopped up by traditional counties, Kilkenny with four, Cork taking two and Tipperary on one.

In junior hurling, Cork and Kilkenny clubs won the first six since the competition began in 2003 and three of the five that followed. The exceptions were wins for Limerick's Blackrock in 2010 and Antrim's Kickhams Creggan last year. But even the traditional counties produce clubs that are of humble origins and for whom a day in Croke Park is still something rare and a memory to keep for life.

In 2012, the manager of the St Patrick's team from Ballyragget that defeated Charleville by one point, Maurice Aylward, articulated what it meant. Having led famed Ballyhale Shamrocks to an All-Ireland senior title previously, he said: "I think this is every bit as good as Ballyhale, because Ballyhale were expected to win. You had superstars on that team - this was just an ordinary hurling team, no great superstars, but some terrific hurlers. It's unbelievable what this is going to do for Ballyragget."

In 2002, Drumgoon of Cavan became the first winners of the All-Ireland junior club football championship when they overcame Belmullet. The club, which is located near Cootehill, will soon celebrate another honour when native Aogán Ó Fearghail takes over from Liam O'Neill later this month as GAA president. He played football for Cootehill Celtic because Drumgoon had no juvenile team in his time.

But tradition still talks. Kerry clubs have won the junior competition a record five times, including three in a row - Skellig Rangers, Castlegregory and St Mary's - between 2009 and 2011. They also lead the intermediate roll of honour with three wins, yet there has been room for victories for Fermanagh and Monaghan clubs. The first winners of the intermediate title were Ilen Rovers, a small club in west Cork with some very talented players like Fachtna Collins and Diarmuid Duggan. They went on to reach a Cork senior final in 2007, losing to Nemo by three points, and have held their senior status since.

After Ardfert defeated Warrenpoint last month to qualify for a third All-Ireland final, their manager Stephen Wallace proudly told Radio Kerry that they had won without a county player. "I am sick of hearing we grind out results, we are strong, we are never beaten, we have a damn good bunch of footballers as well. They would do anything I'd ask them, they are unbelievably dedicated. These guys are serious footballers. They deserve a bit of recognition now I think."

All the teams are serious and well prepared, but there are still occasional reminders that they are not part of the elite. When Ballinasloe turned up in Croke Park without their jerseys for the All-Ireland junior final in 2013, they had to borrow a set from Na Fianna at nearby Mobhi Road. They won, so they were able to laugh about it afterwards. "We just left them behind us," said their manager Seán Riddell. "It was unfortunate, but we used it as a bit of banter inside. But the lad that forgot the jerseys never forgets anything and he was in bits. All the lads, they didn't care. If we had to go out in pink jerseys, we didn't care. We had a mission and we really wanted to do it."

Ballinasloe had fallen on hard times after winning a stack of senior county football championships in the early part of their history. This odd and special day will forever stand alone. Every club can aspire to one like it, to win an All-Ireland, no matter how modest their origins or scant their tradition of winning. As next weekend will show us, it's no longer an impossible dream.

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