Thursday 23 November 2017

Sylvie Linnane: Gort must keep King Henry on tight rein

Galway legend urges underdogs to 'harass' Ballyhale superstars

Gort's Gerard O'Donoghue, Richard Cummins and Michael Cummins celebrating their victory in the Galway SHC final, which earned them a date with Ballyhale today
Gort's Gerard O'Donoghue, Richard Cummins and Michael Cummins celebrating their victory in the Galway SHC final, which earned them a date with Ballyhale today
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Gort and Galway hurling legend Sylvie Linnane hopes that the present generation can do what his 1983-84 team failed to achieve - beat Ballyhale Shamrocks in the All-Ireland Club championship.

The teak-tough defender of yesteryear knows that toppling the Kilkenny champions is a big challenge.

Despite winning three All-Irelands and two National Leagues with Galway, plus three All Stars, he still has regrets about Gort's encounter with Ballyhale 31 years ago.

The date was April 15, 1984, and the venue was Birr - no St Patrick's Day outing at Croke Park for the club finalists in those days.

In fact, the All-Ireland semi-finals and final were played on the same weekend, so after a mighty performance in defeating Midleton of Cork on April 14, Gort were obliged to take on the pride of Kilkenny 24 hours later.

They came very close to achieving a famous victory over a Ballyhale side backboned by seven members of the Fennelly family.

Wides

"Shamrocks beat us after a replay by a couple of points. We should have won it the first day, we had loads of wides in the second half," recalls Linnane. "We got plenty of chances to win it and we didn't do it."

The first match was drawn at 1-10 each, and in the replay at Thurles on June 3 - talk about extending the club season! - Ballyhale availed of their second chance to win 1-10 to 0-7.

Two years previously Linnane and Co had come a cropper against another Kilkenny team after winning the 1981 Galway title.

They played James Stephens, who had Brian Cody in their ranks, in the All-Ireland semi-final in April 1982, and lost by 1-13 to 1-8.

Since those successes of '81 and '83, Gort have won the county title only twice - in 2011 and last December, when, after a final that was delayed by a protracted dispute concerning Turloughmore and Beagh, they eventually came through to defeat reigning All-Ireland champions Portumna.

Gort's management team of Ger Spelman, Mattie Murphy and Michael Finn have done a fine job in guiding the team through to this stage.

Murphy was a member of the Gort sides of 1981 and '83, and was team manager in 2011 when the club bridged a gap of 28 years to come to the fore in their county once again.

Thurles was to be the venue for today's match, but on Thursday the GAA had to announce a switch to Tullamore due to heavy frost at Semple Stadium.

The venue is of secondary importance to Linnane. For him, it's all about getting off to a good start and staying in touch - literally and metaphorically - with their illustrious opponents.

"Against Portumna, the big strength was the tackling and the harassing and the blocking down and the way they worked for each other," he says.

"It was very good on the day, and they'll have to do the same against Shamrocks.

"Shamrocks have six or seven top-class Kilkenny players and it's going to be very hard to beat them. It's a big ask. There's TJ Reid, the two Fennellys (Colin and Michael), you have (Joey) Holden and you have Cha Fitzpatrick and you have (Henry) Shefflin.

"Our lads will have to perform and they'll have to hurl like they did in the (Galway) final, hooking, harassing, and they'll have to stick like glue to the men they're marking.

"They can't be letting those guys free and giving them room. They'll have to be up their backsides all the time."

You'd have to wonder what an epic encounter it would be if Shefflin was marked by Linnane in his prime.

Linnane hopes that Shefflin's impact can be diluted by the Gort defence and while he hopes the King ends up on the losing side, there's no question about his respect for the Ballyhale and Kilkenny legend.

"He's a great sportsman. He's a great hurler all round. You have to admire him," he says.

"What we have to try and do is try and keep him scoreless for as long as we can, and it's going to be a big ask.

"But we'll still admire him afterwards. Win or lose he'd be one of our sporting heroes down here."

Gort is a tight-knit community, and Sylvie has three sons involved in the latest bid to make a major breakthrough for the club - Sylvie Og (25), Tadgh (28) and Darragh (30).

Experience

Sylvie Og and Aidan Harte have the benefit of inter-county experience, and Gort have fewer players with top-level experience than Ballyhale, the Galway men cannot be underestimated.

Any team which can dethrone the All-Ireland champions, as Gort did to Portumna in the county final, poses a big threat, and unfortunately for Gort, Ballyhale don't do complacency.

That said, Linnane is not shouting the odds on behalf of his own club either.

"Portumna were slipping. It wasn't the team they had a couple of years ago. There's a few of them retired," he says.

"They probably should have been beaten earlier in the championship by Loughrea in Craughwell, so we don't know how good Gort are yet."

The AIB Club hurling title has been dominated by Galway and Kilkenny clubs over the last ten years.

From 2005-14 inclusive, Galway clubs have won six, three went to Kilkenny sides and one - in 2012 - to Loughgiel Shamrocks of Antrim.

Portumna lead the way with four wins - 2006, '08, '09 and 2014.

James Stephens won in 2005, and Ballyhale Shamrocks triumphed in 2007 and 2010.

Clarinbridge and St Thomas' raised the Galway flag high in 2011 and 2013, respectively.

Where St Thomas' have gone, there's no reason why neighbours Gort, with similar resources, cannot follow.

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