Youthful promise blossoms as Tribal war moves to the pitch
Outsiders do battle in Galway hurling decider
In the midst of ongoing conflict within Galway hurling, today's county final offers a relieving antidote, involving clubs long odds to be the last two standing when the season began: Craughwell and Sarsfields. With none of the players who started for Galway against Kilkenny in September's All-Ireland final involved, the novel meeting in Athenry seems less contaminated by the more toxic atmosphere at large.
The search for a resolution to that crisis continues, with the players due to have met a county board-appointed mediator on Thursday night last. Nobody can see any obvious common ground in a divisive affair that has stripped away much of the optimism generated by Galway's run to the final. But, hey, that's the bad news.
The good news is a refreshing county final where either winner is guaranteed to be a popular choice. Even during Galway's long stretch without a senior All-Ireland their club championship has been commonly acknowledged as one of the most competitive and respected in the country. That makes the appearance of two outsiders more noteworthy. Craughwell, though pressing in recent years and beaten narrowly by Portumna in last year's semi-finals, haven't won a Galway senior hurling title since 1930.
Sarsfields' feats of the 1990s are still fresh in the memory yet they haven't contested a county final since 2002, and their last win was in 1997 when Pádraig Kelly was captain. Ten of the team that defeated Gort in the semi-finals recently went through St Killian's VS in New Inn where Kelly is now principal. Sarsfields have had some assistance from John Hardiman with the team's preparation in recent months but when it came to picking a manager at the start of the year, nobody came forward. Eventually, Cathal Murray, an experienced member of the full-back line, stepped in as player-manager.
Craughwell's hopes today rest heavily on the shoulders of Niall Healy, their leading marksman and free-taker, whose prolific scoring has been critical. Healy was a county minor three years running and one of those whose rich promise as a teenager never fully blossomed at senior.
The story of the Galway minor who never quite fulfilled his potential is not a new one. From the Sarsfields team, Kerril Wade also falls into that category, a brilliant minor who failed to press on and make a mark on the senior county team. Both Wade and Healy have made major contributions in helping to get their clubs to a county final.
Healy made the more noticeable impression for the county and 10 years ago scored three goals in a stunning All-Ireland semi-final win over Kilkenny. His career since has been stunted by injury more than a lack of application or talent. "Niall was minor captain in 2003, he was the stand-out minor that time," says Mattie Murphy, who led Galway to six All-Ireland minor wins, though they were beaten by Kilkenny in '03. "We always look back to that minor final ('03) as one where he (Healy) was cynically taken out on the way towards goal at one stage and he probably wasn't fit to take the free; I'd say he was concussed. He missed it and we were beaten narrowly. He was outstanding in the final and all through."
Healy missed last year's semi-final defeat by Portumna and Galway's championship after he suffered a serious knee injury in May. "He didn't play in the county semi-final and they (Craughwell) had 21 wides, seven or eight from placed balls," says Murphy. "There is no doubt had he not been injured there would only have been only one result. He has battled his way through a horrendous amount of serious injuries. Most other fellas wouldn't be able to come back from one of those injuries; he has had a litany of them. He is unmarkable in club hurling in Galway."
Healy's older brother Fergal also had three years playing minor for Galway in the previous decade, with Murphy his manager in 1994 and '95. "The two Healys," explains Murphy, "there would be no more driven players in the county. When Galway hurling didn't know much about a gym both of those fellas would have been in a gym. As soon as they were out of a championship they'd be preparing for the next one. They are the reason that Craughwell are in this county final. They would have driven the whole agenda of how to prepare, to do what they had to do."
Wade starred when Kilkenny won the 2004 All-Ireland minor final, and was also there in '03, but his senior career never really took off. He was involved initially during Ger Loughnane's time in charge without managing to pin down a regular place. On the day Joe Canning made his championship debut against Antrim in '08, Wade scored two goals as a substitute, with Niall Healy also coming off the bench. Like Healy, he has had his injury troubles.
"We had good players but he was a go-to player," says Murphy of Wade in 2004. "From his own 70 to the 21, any time he stood over a free he was capable of converting it. He won an All-Ireland under 21 final against Kilkenny after and at that stage he seemed to have the hurling but that was about the time when there was a constant change of county managers. There was also a view that Galway forwards were too small and were not able to win their own ball.
"He would be one of those you would have expected to kick on. If you had a manager who would have been comfortable enough in his position, to allow him that latitude, he might have been one of the players he might have held on to. Throwing him in at 19-20 was not doing him any favours but if you could do what (Brian) Cody does, wait till he was 23-24, it might have been different."
Murphy ruefully notes that a player he feels Wade "absolutely roasted" in 2004, Shane Prendergast, went on to win an All-Ireland senior medal this year. "At 18 that is where they were (both) at," he adds.
He sees a new bounce in Wade's step now. "I would say he'll have a big game; he always loves the big occasion, he always steps up in finals. He no longer has the responsibility of the free-taking. He will cause a lot of trouble for the Craughwell backs."
Both Healy and Wade, Murphy says, still have that match-winning ability and star quality. "They have been doing this with their eyes closed since 11 or 12, and talked about in their clubs since 11 or 12. You would have to be a small bit special to be talked up as much as they were."
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