Friday 17 January 2020

Underdogs making a habit of winning against all odds

Garrycastle face the biggest challenge of their short history against Crossmaglen, writes Damian Lawlor

THE man on the other end of the phone wasn't taking no for an answer. Dessie Dolan senior was explaining that he was manager of the Longford senior footballers and trying to combine work with raising a young family. Time was a luxury he didn't have. But Pat Devlin was hard to shake off.

"C'mon Dessie. Give me one night with the under 12s. That will be it."

A few days later, Dolan cut a rare evening off short and ambled down to the local pitch where Garrycastle's youngest players were lined up and ready to train. He put them through their paces and got sucked in by their energy and enthusiasm.

One night turned into nine years. By the time Dolan left their side those young boys had grown into men, winning county medals all the way up to under 21.

"Pat was in charge of those young lads around the time," Dolan recalls. "In many ways he was before his time. He worked as a salesman and was always on the road. I don't know how he did it but he would turn up for training every night with the boot of his car filled with Taytos and bottles of orange. After training the lads would make a beeline for his car. It was only a small thing, and I know people would pour scorn on it, but I reckon that was one of the biggest factors that made those lads so successful all the way up. They loved a bit of a reward for their effort and there was a great spirit after our sessions. It built up from there and lasts until the present day."

That said, Dolan's youngsters were well ahead of their time when it came to the on-field stuff; the skills, tactics and game-management.

"There has to be some element of fun involved, but we were dead serious at the right times," Dolan remembers. "Even then we had three tactics for the forwards alone and the lads were clever enough to adapt. We taught them not to panic during games and they retained those qualities all the way up."

Next Saturday they play Crossmaglen in their first All-Ireland final, which is remarkable considering they didn't even have a permanent home until 1997.

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The club was formed in 1981 and a year later they landed the Westmeath junior championship. Like so many other fledgling outfits, they huffed and puffed at intermediate level and were soon relegated.

It took a few years to catch their breath and go again, but in 1993 they were back on the podium with a second junior title. As they set off on the next stage of their journey, the foundations were more stable.

During the early years they relied on friends at the local Marist College and VEC to help them fulfil fixtures. They finally acquired their own pitch, though, and from there the progress hasn't stopped. In 2003, they added dressing rooms and developed a clubhouse. Four years on, they put up floodlights and a stand.

If they built slowly off the field, they were in more of a rush on it. They contested 25 underage premier championship finals between 1985 and 1997, winning 14. They finally secured their senior status in '97 and a first senior title arrived in 2001.

"Take our first successful senior team of 2001 -- most of those lads had been on teams that won the whole way up," Dolan says. "And people like Pat, Joe Kelly and Gerry O'Neill played massive roles in their progression."

In the beginning they were firmly considered the second club in Athlone but are now established as the leading light of Westmeath football, winning six county senior titles between 2001 and 2011.

They might lack a long tradition and a golden heritage, but they have hardly put a foot wrong. In fact, their recent past reads like a blueprint for how to have a successful club. Their players are solid and dependable. People thought they would go away after they lost a few semi-finals at the end of the last decade, but through an exceptional team ethic, they became adept at digging games out.

Officials and locals ensured the club itself has kept pace with this success. Until 1994 there wasn't even a pub in the east Athlone vicinity but shortly afterwards housing estates were developed and small local businesses began to sprout up. Garrycastle GAA grew with them.

There's a perception that the club was formed after a split with Athlone, but that's not the case. Garrycastle was formed in 1981 while the disagreement in Athlone didn't materialise until 1984. It was a messy dispute and relationships broke down over differences on how holiday money raised should be distributed. It spiralled out of control and actually saw two Athlone teams tog out for the same match at one stage.

Some players who left Athlone joined the new club but the real genesis of Garrycastle came from the need for a second club in the town to cope with growing numbers. At one stage Athlone were fielding three under 12 teams to try to cope with the huge number of kids, many of whom were coming from the Garrycastle area.

People like the late Dan Hogan from Toomevara, Dermot Ryan from Moneygall and Jack Veale from Waterford saw there was a necessity for another club. There was no objection from the existing town club although some outside Athlone had reservations that a second team in the area could cause them to lose players. Garrycastle gave assurances this wouldn't happen.

"Technically, anyone in Athlone can play for Garrycastle because there is no parish rule or town boundary system in Westmeath," Dolan says. "But most of the lads come from the same place anyway, east of town."

Locals believe the secret to their success is the quality of underage coaching. "Michael Lydon from Galway brought the whole underage set-up to a new level," says Dolan, "and the work he did at the school at Coosan was unreal. We won an under 12 county title in 1985, our very first underage success and that was the start of it. Aidan Barry also did powerful work at schools level. They played a huge role.

"But I still think we've failed a little at underage coaching in the last few years because that's where it all starts off. Now some of the current senior players are getting back and giving a hand which is good."

Such reinvestment is crucial. As was the recruitment of Anthony Cunningham from St Brigid's across the border. Before he came on board they had lost two county semi-finals and were in danger of fading away. Since Cunningham took over, they have won county titles every year and became the first Westmeath club to land a Leinster title.

All the way through the provincial championship and All-Ireland series Garrycastle have been underdogs and the odds are even greater for the final against the giants of the club championship, Crossmaglen. Some bookies have them at 4/1.

"What's coming back to us here is that we're wasting our time going up," Dolan says. "But I fully respect all Cross' have done, especially in the wake of the late 1960s when the Troubles were so bad up north. We've played them in challenges and they'd often come down to us to get away from the intimidation. On one occasion we played them and found out a week later that their dressing rooms had been blown up.

"Just a few years ago I went back to Cross' to see Armagh and Westmeath and during the game an Army helicopter hovered over the pitch with two machine guns pointing down at the field. I have massive respect for them even if we don't fully appreciate the hardships they endured.

"They are the yardstick for everyone to go by. Results-wise there is no-one like them so I think our challenge is a massive one. But our lads are close-knit. Of the team that won the 2001 title, 10 of them started in 2011. So there's lots of experience. We won't go down without a fight."

It would be some accomplishment to take their story further. But upsetting the odds has begun to define them.

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