'Our lads are totally focused on driving in right direction'
Lucan Sarsfields enter their first Dublin senior final with big ambitions, says Damian Lawlor
A decent chunk of the Lucan Sarsfields senior hurling team congregated in Cavan last weekend for the wedding of one of their comrades, Tadhg Clandillon. Damian Fox, manager of the hurling team that play in the Dublin county final today, wasn't there. He didn't need to be.
"Everyone was on the dry," Fox reports. "But that's what I anticipated. They are a serious bunch of lads, they know what's coming and none of them took a drink."
Most of them were in bed by midnight too.
"Were they? Fox enquires. "I didn't know that. Look, I didn't need to know it either. I'd have full trust in them. They do things right."
The former Laois manager was approached to take the south Dublin team in the winter of 2011. His coaching credentials are impressive, so it wasn't a big stretch for the Lucan officials to drive to his home town of Tullamore to seek him out.
Fox is a hurling missionary who only packed up playing with the club senior team in recent times, winning an Offaly senior medal at the age of 48 in 2009. The game sucked him in as a young kid and still draws him to this day.
Despite playing for so long, his involvement in management can be traced way back to 1997 when he cut his teeth with the Longford minors. A decade later, he led the Laois seniors out of Division 2.
In between, he also took charge of Clonaslee Gaels (county semi-finalists 1999), Tinnahinch (county finalists 2001-2002) and Portlaoise (county champions 2004). In 2009, he brought Castletown Geoghegan to the Westmeath semi-final and was appointed Offaly minor coach a year later.
The Lucan officials knew their man, but they knew what they wanted too. "Those lads let it be known what was expected from me the very first night I met them," he recounts. "They had never been in a senior county final before but it was on their radar even back then. Targets were high and they let me know it.
"In a way, you'd have pressure driving up from Tullamore; that would be resting on your shoulders going to training in terms of making sure the tempo, drills and intensity were right. It's all good. It makes you perform better. They have been super to deal with and I'd like to think I have met their expectations so far as well."
That he has. Promotion last year and today their first ever senior county final. "It's a good feeling," Fox admits. "It's been a great year for the club overall."
Last weekend they played in the county junior 'A' final, though they were beaten by Castleknock. They do, however, have the county junior 'B' title in the bag.
"Yeah, it's good," Fox says, reflecting on what's coming up through the ranks. "And it needs to be because clubs here are really improving all the time. They opted to play minor 'B' in Lucan this year which I was a small bit surprised with. I suppose there are a lot of guys who are only in their first year minor and the club wanted to protect them, but it will be a good challenge to get into minor 'A'. Like, even at senior level the differences between Division 1 and 2 are night and day. The standard in Division 2 is decent but go up a tier and the gulf in class is totally evident in terms of intensity, touch and skill."
Fox puts that down to the impact the county team has had on clubs and their psyche. "Anthony Daly and the work he is doing seems to have lifted the whole thing," the Offaly native suggests.
"You can tell that clubs are taking their lead from what they see with the Dublin seniors. They play a great style and they tick every box a hurling team would wish to. The clubs here know what's needed now. Certainly, the Lucan lads have given me everything anyway.
"There are born leaders about the place. If a training session is dropping in pace or intensity, the likes of Peter Kelly and Johnny McCaffrey more or less do my job for me. They stop a game and let the others know it's not good enough. Great work was done over the past five years by Seán McCaffrey to set those standards so I've just been maintaining that and trying to ensure we don't slip."
With Peter Kelly winning an All Star on Friday night, morale is simply massive heading into today's game against the highly-fancied Ballyboden St Enda's, who have progressed to this year's final quite diligently, defeating Kilmacud Crokes 3-14 to 2-13 in their quarter-final and then heavily beating St Brigid's 2-17 to 1-9.
Sarsfields overcame Crumlin in the quarter-finals with a 0-25 to 1-17 win in O'Toole Park, scoring 18 points from play in the process, while they defeated Craobh Chiaráin in a tough semi-final two weeks ago with a 1-13 to 1-9 win. It was the second occasion Chiaráin and Sarsfields had tested each other this year – they played out a draw a few months earlier in the group stages. In the end, Sars had too much with players like Kelly, Chris Crummey, Johnny and Matt McCaffrey all to the fore.
Seán McLelland, a three-year county minor, is another dangerous weapon Fox can call on and he knows they will need everyone firing to come through today.
"Ballyboden are a great side," he says. "They may not have won the title last year but they won it five times in a row before that so we know what they are all about. At the same time they can only play 15 men, same as ourselves. I wouldn't hold any fear of playing them. Our lads are totally focused on this and they want to keep the club driving in the right direction."
Fox knows the importance of striking while the iron is hot. In 1964, he was the Tullamore team mascot when they landed the Offaly senior hurling title.
Just 13 years later, at the age of 16, he was on that team himself
and it seemed a war chest of honours awaited him.
But the club was relegated to intermediate and in the years that followed, while they enjoyed the occasional good day, winning intermediate and senior 'B' cups in 1989 and 1990 to regain that senior status, for so long the big one eluded them.
Then at the tail end of his career, Tullamore were crowned Offaly champions for the first time in 45 years. He was still part of the set-up. It was a fairytale.
Fox, though, is in the business of making things happen.
"Ballyboden are a great side. They have some of the best players in Dublin. But this is a huge occasion, for us; a first ever county final. This is not just the result of one season's work; this is a credit to the team for about six or seven years of hard work.
"The club is packed with decent people, hard-working people who were very welcoming to me. This means a lot to anyone who is connected but there's a lot of work to do yet. It's all very well getting to a county final but we need to drive over the line and get the victory. That's what expected here."
He's helped raise the bar. But in Lucan Sarsfields they want to go even higher now.