Hurling dream really can come true - Castleblayney head to Croke Park today hoping to defy all the odds
We were to meet in Carrickmacross, when he finished school, but instead he suggests we take a spin over to Castleblayney to the hurling pitch outside the town. Before long, a car appears, twin flags attached to its bonnet, green and gold fabric blowing in the wind. Jimmy Lacey, manager of the Castleblayney hurlers, introduces himself.
His story has been well told by now. How he moved to Castleblayney, his wife's home place, in 2007. They had met in teacher training college. His original home in Ballyragget is around 25 miles from Dunnamaggin, who Castleblayney face in today's All-Ireland junior club final in Croke Park. He is chairman of Castleblayney hurling club and took the manager's post, along with Barry O'Reilly, because none of the 15 people he asked was in a position to accept.
Flags saluting the hurling team can be seen throughout a town that's steeped in football and country music. There were little hurling moments in the past in Monaghan that made people take notice. Like the time Joe Hayes, the former Tipperary hurler, took over the county team and played while stationed as a garda there. But those were illusive steps forward whereas this team is rooted in the community, almost entirely home-grown.
Somehow, in spite of all the distractions and the absence of traditional safeguards, they stayed hurling in a county where there are only five teams in the senior championship. To reach an All-Ireland final for a club drawn from this environment is notoriously difficult and predictably rare. To win it? At the latest odds, were you to place a grand on Dunnamaggin to triumph the return on your money would be a measly €15.
So the conventional thought is that the Monaghan lads are lambs to the slaughter. "Being underdogs suits us," says the Castleblayney hurler, Fergal Rafter. "Being written off is no issue to us. They (Dunnamaggin) are good hurlers but if you can put them under pressure and we play our game we 100 per cent believe we can go up to Croke Park and win the game."
The All-Ireland club junior and intermediate competitions have been a breath of fresh air, a stroke of genius from the GAA since their inception in the middle of the last decade. The junior competition is a mix of clubs drawn from senior, intermediate and junior championships in their counties, graded according to perceived strengths and weaknesses. In weaker counties the senior champions can enter. But a junior winner in Kilkenny is still expected to defeat a senior champion in a string of counties, including Monaghan. Graded as the competition has been, Kilkenny, along with Cork to a lesser degree, tends to produce the winner.
Castleblayney won Ulster junior hurling titles in 2005 and again in 2014, each time beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final. This time Carrick from Leitrim emerged as surprise Connacht winners, defeating the Galway winners Ballygar, ensuring the All-Ireland would have a participant from one of the many parts of the country seen as a hurling desert. After a struggle, and tense finish, Castleblayney hung on to win by a point in Mullingar. In the other semi-final the blue bloods from Cork and Kilkenny went to extra-time before Dunnamaggin emerged victorious over Cloughduv.
"At the end of the day we are nothing special," says Rafter, who is 25 and works in Dublin. "It is just hard work and determination and belief that has got us here. There is no rocket science to it."
Rafter owes his interest in hurling to some extent to his father, who came to settle in the town from Wexford. "I picked it up at a very early age," he says. "I'd use his hurls that were lying around the house as a two- or three-year-old or whatever and from there I played as much and as often as possible. Being from Monaghan, a predominantly football county, there were always a lot more football opportunities than there were hurling, and I played football all the way up too, but hurling was my first love. There was never a question of quitting it or anything like that, it was always what I wanted to do."
We are driving towards the hurling pitch at Concra, Jimmy Lacey at the wheel. Lacey came here almost 12 years ago and quickly became involved in the club as a means of integrating himself into the town. He had no grand plans or designs on becoming as deeply involved as he has. He started out as a player and was still hurling for the team until 2016. Along the way he served on the club committee and trained every juvenile grade.
Concra and Croke Park are divided by 64 miles but a world apart in every other way. Lacey turns off the main road and drives up a country lane, stopping the car twice to open farm gates, before we reach the pitch. It has been their home for the last eight years. The field slopes steeply down into one corner. "I think if you go down there," he says, pointing, "you can only see the boys' knees in the corner opposite."
He is proud of this pitch, modest as it is, and what it represents, in lessening their dependence on others and creating a greater autonomy. There isn't much to see. A field and two goalposts on a patch of farmland. There are two green containers that serve as dressing rooms. No showers. No running water. No advertising signs. No dugouts. Today the lads who call this home will tog out in the grandeur of a world-class stadium. "People come and they laugh at us, turn their nose up at us, but it's served us so well over the last few years. It's ours."
Last weekend Croke Park allowed them access to the changing rooms to get a feel for the place. A few of the players appeared there in mini-exhibition games as kids. Otherwise it will be a step into the unknown, one they might never experience again.
On the other side there's Noel Hickey and his nine All-Ireland medals that place him firmly among the game's elite. His brother Tom, who captained Kilkenny in an All-Ireland senior final, and Eamonn Kennedy, part of the first successful team under Brian Cody, are on the management team. But only two teams get to play in this All-Ireland club junior hurling final out of all that started in every county championship in Ireland. And one of those is from Monaghan.
"I played in Kilkenny," says Lacey. "Ah I was never particularly good, I was plugging away down there. I would probably have been a sub on our main team, our junior team. We had a good few barren years. And in 2011 they ended up winning an All-Ireland (junior club) themselves. It was quite a shock moving from hurling in Kilkenny to hurling in Monaghan but at the same time it probably was a lot better than I thought it would be and that many people would think it is.
"The thing I often say about it is that the people who are involved in it here are every bit as passionate and as hard-working as they are anywhere in Kilkenny, or Tipperary, or anywhere else. You just don't have as many. You are relying on a small cohort to keep the thing going. That's just the practicality of it. It is a football county."
But the town has warmed to them. When they won the county title they had to go to Letterkenny to play Burt in the first round in Ulster. Unfancied, they came from behind to win. They had to do the same in the final against Robert Emmets of Cushendun. And again in the All-Ireland quarter-final in Birmingham against John Mitchels.
"The vast majority of the players are home-grown," says Lacey. "I think that is something people in the town are proud of. There is a running joke that if you played hurling in Monaghan you were either a guard, a customs officer or a teacher."
Lacey says the GAA needs to promote regional competition that gives clubs in weaker counties more competitive games. The Táin Óg League, an example of this, has been well received and Castleblayney entered an under 13 team which travelled to play teams from other counties. Several of their senior hurlers are dual players who also turn out for the Faughs, the town's famed football club. The relationship between the two codes is generally healthy and accommodating. In high season, hurling matches are played on Thursday nights. Weekends are left for football. The demarcation lines are clearly drawn.
Lacey speaks highly of the competition they are hoping to win this afternoon, even if the odds are frightening. "It's a great competition. I heard someone say it is a competition that allows dreams to come true. You could have this abstract dream about playing for your county in Croke Park, but the reality of that happening is a long way away. Maybe for a lot of clubs the reality of playing in Croke Park is a long way away too, but we are lucky. We have a lot of young fellas coming into the panel and they may not be involved with us this year if it were not for the big journey we're on. They have been immersed in hurling now since October, flat out, two or three times a week. So hopefully it is going to stand to them and to the club and you know all those wee fellas can look at you and see that you are hurling in Croke Park and they realise that the hurling club is something that can take you somewhere."
Will hurling become a more sustained presence as a result of this brush with minor celebrity? "At the moment you have possibly one of the biggest footballers in Ireland, Conor McManus, six or seven miles out the road," as Lacey says. "We'd be foolish to think the little bubble we are in at the moment will last forever as well. We will play the final and win, lose or draw, whatever way it goes, in two or three weeks' time we will be back hurling away. That's the reality of it. Castleblayney hurling club are going to step back into the shadow a little but I suppose we are trying to make hay while the sun shines.
"You will have people here who are interested in hurling who will idolise Joe Canning. Same as they would Conor McManus. Or Seamus Callanan. Or the lads coming, Aaron Gillane or Kyle Hayes. So while they may not be able to identify with players in the same parochial sense they can see those other superstars. The game is so good at the moment. Even league matches at this time of the year are so exciting that there's plenty for them to aspire to and keep their interest in the game. It's just that it's not as local."
Lacey says the team's success has helped raise spirits after recent bereavements including the tragic death of a former member, Stephen Marron, in late November last. He was killed while sitting in his parked car in the town and left behind a young family. "He was heavily involved with the club," says Lacey, "in coaching, while his father was treasurer, he was treasurer too, he was a selector with the county minor team for a few years." Members of the hurling club were among those who formed a guard of honour at this funeral.
The journey of a Monaghan hurling team to Croke Park has been an unforgettable experience. Everything is in place now. They've won a toss to wear their own jerseys, and Lacey says there is no more work left. It is now a waiting game. They can't get any fitter or better at this stage.
When it's over, he and the rest will have memories to last them a lifetime. The trip to Birmingham for the quarter-final will be one of those. "We had a great group of followers, 50 or 60, in Birmingham standing on the bank and if there was a stand-out moment in the whole year, for me, (it was when) we were five points down with 15 minutes to go," says Lacey, "and I think we got two points, we were coming back at them, and next thing this roar rose up from the bank on the far side of the field, 'Blayney, Blayney, Blayney!' You know there were years when we hadn't as many at county finals as we had over in Birmingham on the far bank. It just goes to show how it has captured the imagination."
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