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Two shore things hope glory awaits in Connacht final

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The Aran Islands' pitch on Inis Orr, with the 14th century O'Brien's Castle in the background

The Aran Islands' pitch on Inis Orr, with the 14th century O'Brien's Castle in the background

The Aran Islands' pitch on Inis Orr, with the 14th century O'Brien's Castle in the background

Any scriptwriter who happens upon the Connacht junior football final in Tuam tomorrow would surely be rubbing their hands in glee.

The respective team crests - a bridge is prominent on one, the other features three islands - hints at the novelty of a game which some suggested should be played off-shore as it, uniquely, pits islanders against islanders.

For the footballers of the Aran Islands, the only way to get to training is usually a round-trip on a ferry and sometimes even two.

Their opponents Achill are not technically on an island as their pitch, on the mainland in Polranny, is right before the bridge that spans Achill Sound.

But they, too, share the heritage and sensibility of islanders, and have their own huge logistical challenges from being based so far west in another spectacular coastal landscape.

Founded in 1941, Achill reached but lost the 2007 provincial junior final to Gort and have been through the mill since, losing 16 of that squad to emigration.

A team meeting in a local hotel four days before last Christmas proved a turning point, according to midfielder and club secretary Michael McNamara (33).

"We'd got relegated from intermediate and it was a bit of a crisis point," he admits.

"We laid it all out on the line, got rid of our demons and agreed to re-start training on February 7 and really commit to it."

They train on Friday nights, at 8.30, with good reason.

Only two of their team - both schoolboys - actually live in Achill. The rest travel extreme distances to train and play - not least Michael's cousin Denis, an engineer who flies in from London.

Yet tomorrow they meet a team whose geography is even more challenging.

Aran's players hail from across all three of their islands (total population 1,050) and a dozen of their squad are still living there.

The club, established in 1996, now has pitches on Inis Oirr and Inis Mor.

The islands are well serviced by year-round ferries from Ros a Mhil (Galway) and there is also a summer service from Doolin (Clare), but that is reliant on the weather and it is not unknown for the club to post on Facebook that training is cancelled due to high seas.

Aran have players based in Cork, Limerick and Dublin, as well as Galway, and even those based locally face a difficult trip to training.

In the summer, with more players at home, they train on Inis Mor, so those who live on Inis Oirr and Inis Meain have to get a 7pm ferry to training.

If they're going well by late summer, when many have returned to work or college, Aran move training to the mainland and this year have been using the county ground in Loughgeorge.

Training for their island-based players means getting the 5pm sailing to Ros a Mhil, driving for an hour to Claregalway, staying overnight with their team-mates and then getting the 8.30am Aer Arann flight back to the islands next morning for work or school.

On winter Sundays there are only two crossings - early morning and tea-time. When they beat Collooney in the Connacht semi-final in Markievicz Park their supporters dashed off early to make the return ferry but the team, literally, missed the boat home.

With a 12.15 throw-in tomorrow, the local ferry company has actually brought forward its usual Sunday morning departure (9am) by 45 minutes to ensure the team has enough time to travel and warm up.

Routine

But boats, planes and automobiles are part of the normal weekly training routine for Aran's players and, after their recent history - they had lost nine of 10 finals since 2002, six by a single point - they're revelling in this success.

Beating Oranmore in the divisional (west) final started their run under new manager Ciaran Foley, and they took Annaghdown's scalp in the county final.

Padraig Hernon (32), a schoolteacher based in Oranmore, is not only a panellist but club secretary and the team's physical therapist and he confirms everything is done "as gaeilge. We use every advantage we can."

The only thing standing between them now is another island team with some native speakers of their own.

It is, truly, a script you couldn't make up.


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