Friday 17 November 2017

Believing in the golden generation

Christy O'Connor

Early evening in Castledaly in south Galway, the temperature is just above three degrees as Cyril Kelly and David Burke take a training session with the St Thomas' U-14s.

The air is raw, but the players warm themselves from the incandescence of the snappy ball drills. There are close to 20 young bodies on the field, but only one of them is actually under 14. The rest are under 13 or younger. For clubs like St Thomas', those numbers reflect their demographic reality.

Situated just off a crossroads, the St Thomas' pitch sits along the main Gort-Loughrea road, where the N66 provides the best map of the locality. The parish stretches out for just nine miles, from Kilchreest to Peterswell.

Travelling the road from Gort, the Slieve Aughty Mountains are perched on the right-hand side, with only a handful of houses dotted along the foothills. On the opposite side of the road, the parish extends only a mile north before it meets the Ardrahan and Craughwell boundaries.

In total, the club are pulling from around 200 houses.

The manager

John Burke

A club that reaches an All-Ireland final drawing from those numbers is usually dependent on a gifted generation of players, families of hurlers delivered in bulk by the same stork.

As well as being the manager, John Burke has six sons on the panel for tomorrow's final. The rest of the squad is mostly stitched together by family connections; Cooneys, Kellys, Murrays, Skehills.

St Thomas' never had a tradition of success, but some of Burke's sons grew up in a group who always had the potential to alter their history. Burke was over the team which won an U-12B title against Carnmore in 2002. That was the starting point on the journey that has taken them all the way to Croke Park.

"We just felt that that bunch of players had something special," says Burke. "They loved hurling and they were all great friends. In a club like ours, when you get a talented group like that, you really have to try and make the most of them."

That U-12 team won an U-16 title before going on to lift minor and U-21 titles. The club played in four U-21 finals in a row between 2009-12, winning one title. When St Thomas' reached their first Galway county senior final last November, those players provided the bedrock of the panel. Sixteen of the 33-man squad were under 21, with 25 under 23.

Despite their youth, they had been knocking on the door for three years before their class eventually turned the key and opened it. They fired their first big flare into the sky in 2011 when they sacked Portumna in the quarter-final. Gort narrowly beat them in the semi-final, but they knew they were close.

"We went back training a few weeks after that loss," says Burke. "We said that if we did the work, we would get on the other side of that scoreline."

After defeating Gort in last year's semi-final replay, they took out Loughrea in the final to win their first title. Afterwards, the challenge was about embracing belief and borrowing on history.

In the last 23 years, Galway clubs have reached 14 All-Ireland finals, winning 10 titles. In only three of those 23 seasons have the side that defeated the Galway champions not gone on to win the All-Ireland.

St Thomas' know they are good enough to win tomorrow. Either way, they are talented and young enough to come back and win more county titles. Still, they can't think in those terms. Not with their numbers. "All along our attitude has been, 'We might only ever get one chance at this, and we're going to take it'," says Burke. "If our lads perform, it will take a very good team to stop us."

The most experienced player

Enda Tannian

This St Thomas' team have provided platoons of players for Galway minor and U-21 teams over the last two decades, but Enda Tannian and Kevin Coy were the original trailblazers for this generation. They both played in a minor All-Ireland final in 1996, which Galway lost to Tipperary after a replay.

The previous year was Tannian's first season on the St Thomas' senior team, when the side were relegated to intermediate. St Thomas' regrouped and were promoted that season. By the end of 1997 though, they were back down in intermediate again.

For most of the early part of Tannian's career, the club were just oscillating, hanging on. "You'd have a decent year, then a bad year, then a year where you'd be wondering if you'd win a single match," says Tannian. "I've seen plenty of bad days."

Prior to last season, most of the good days came before the First World War. Peterswell were the first dominant force of Galway hurling, winning seven senior titles between 1889 and 1907. Then emigration began to decimate the area. In 1968, Peterswell joined with Kilchreest and formed St Thomas'.

They won a junior title in 1974 and reached the senior grade in 1978, making it to the semi-finals the following year. They reached another semi-final in 1989, but the primary challenge during those two decades was to retain their senior status, which they eventually lost in 1995, and 1997.

Under the guidance of Cyril Kelly and Francis O'Connor, they were intermediate champions again in 2004. It was a turning point. "Every year then after that was a little step in the right direction," says Tannian.

A lot of that 2004 team came off an U-21 'B' winning side in 1995, which Tannian had been a part of. That was considered a bounty in a club like St Thomas', but the next cycle of talented underage players in the parish amounted to a boom. By the time those young players were minors in 2008, Tannian was a selector.

"I remember thinking at that time, 'there is something special in this group that could really take us places'," says Tannian now. "I knew it wouldn't happen overnight. But I knew it would happen."

When it did, Tannian was the team's most experienced player at 34. His two-year-old son Matthew was the mascot for the county final. Tomorrow, he returns to Croke Park for the first time since 1996.

"Life has a funny way of throwing things at you," he says. "I thought I'd be back there again, but I wasn't. Things like that make you appreciate once-in-a-lifetime chances.

"For us, it's like a freak of nature to have this team. Clubs like Oranmore and Castlegar would have more people in 100 square yards than we have in half of this parish. Numbers is a huge thing in a small place like this. So we know that this could be it for us. This is our chance. This is definitely my chance."

The captain

Robert Murray

Rob Murray grew up watching his brother Richie make a name for himself with Galway in Croke Park – an All-Ireland minor winner in 1999, All-Ireland minor-winning captain in 2000 and senior final appearances in 2001 and 2005.

When St Thomas' won the Galway title last November, Richie Murray's name was back in neon lights, as he hit three goals in the final. During the presentation, Rob Murray lifted the cup, with Richie at his side.

"That was an unbelievably proud moment," says Rob Murray. "Especially with Richie beside me."

Another brother, Gerald, also plays. "It is a brothers' effort," says Rob. "Burkes, Skehills, Cooneys, Murrays and Kellys. We are a small club driven by families and best friends."

Like a lot of players, Murray has surfed the waves from the tide of success whipped up by the younger generation. More importantly, they have changed his and the club's mindset. Being honest, Murray never saw this happening. He had played during an era when Athenry and Portumna often mowed clubs such as St Thomas' down like a German panzer division.

"I knew there was huge talent coming, but I wasn't sure if we could ever make the step up to the level we are at now," says Murray. "I just felt there was a certain level that Thomas' could get to, but this group have blown all that out of the water. We can compete with the best in the country now."

When Athenry and Portumna were in their pomp, they had teams psychologically beaten before they even went out. Given their youthful age profile, this St Thomas' team have the potential to create their own rich legacy.

Yet they don't have the same aura, or carry the same fear factor that Athenry and Portumna had even in the early stages of their dominance.

That perception of St Thomas' comes from a fusion of many different elements; a lack of history, physicality, marquee names, numbers and tradition. The players know how they are perceived within Galway. Yet they also know what they must do to change it.

"Any team that goes out against us in Galway would fancy beating us," says Murray.

"Can we even be considered favourites for the Galway championship this year? We don't have that fear factor now, but if we keep getting big wins, we might get that. In a few years' time, guys like Conor Cooney and Darragh Burke will be men to be feared. And, hopefully, we will be a team to be feared too."

Good days are here. Better days may be coming. But tomorrow could be eternal.

Irish Independent

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