Months of hard work, cold nights training on muddy fields, games played in driving sleet and cutting winds, all hardships endured along the way were swiftly brushed aside in a moment of celebration: Michael Donohue accepted The Fergal Maher Cup from GAA President Sean Kelly in Athlone on Saturday, turned to his team-mates and the large travelling support and proudly saluted the new All-Ireland champions.
Fergal Maher Cup winning team
The celebrations that greeted the final whistle were a testament to how much this victory meant to a group of men who have worked feverishly, trained incessantly and dedicated themselves totally for this very moment.
That the sense of occasion was heightened by the presence of Mr Kelly and other College Hurling officials, by being the curtain raiser to the Fitzgibbon Cup, by the pre-match parade the gathering for Amhrain na bFhian; brought added pressure and nerves prior to the throw-in- on what was always going to be a memorable day for the lads. However once the whistle was blown everything clicked into place. Many big days have been marked by high profile players underperforming, not so this team, every player seemed to have saved his best until last and we got sixty minutes of scintillating Hurling.
Stephen McKeogh came strongly form defence to field a high ball into the area, clear the immediate danger and end Letterfrack’s first few minutes of dominance, it was a dominance they were never again going to enjoy in the game.
With Michael Byrnes and Will O’Halloran starting to dominate in midfield the supply line to the full forward line was firing on all cylinders. It wasn’t proving immediately effective however as Letterfrack had done their homework and Gavin Keary was being tightly marked. The flaw in this plan was quickly revealed as Keary turned supplier setting up Sean Callaghan and Emmet Divilly for well-taken scores. Some loose marking and silly fouls allowed the Galway men get back on par but when Keary flicked a delightful ball into the path of Callaghan he fired home to really lift the spirits.
The rock of this team has always been the half back line but never have all three of them put in such impressive performances simultaneously. Wayne Power in particular put in the performance we knew he was capable of but had eluded him in the previous few games. The dominance here was the springboard for furthering the lead. Johnny Mullins stylishly soloing up-field, Ger Whyte batting down to gather with a flick and driving the sliotar sixty yards and Power stopping forwards in their tracks; seemed to be on constant action replay, no sooner had the Galway men gathered themselves for an attack than this Wall of resistance was set in motion. Will O’ Halloran was a flurry of motion one minute a courageous blockdown, next gathering a loose ball to somehow worm his way form a crowd to start another attack, again stopping a Galway runner – the embodiment of persistence, like a dog with a bone once he had some one in his grasp they were not getting away. He turned ball over, forced frees for over carrying and even managed to pop up with a wonderful long-range score.
Gavin managed to tip over some of those frees, minutes later he showed the most sublime touch to score the goal of, this or any game. Being harassed and pushed away from goal and almost onto the touchline, most players would have been thinking of gathering the ball and hoping to find support in a better position. Keary had no such thoughts, a quick glance, and a deft one-handed flick in the opposite direction to which he was running and then ball was nestling in the back of the net before keeper or defender really understood what was happening.
With a healthy lead and everyone on top of their game things looked comfortable, but then came the blip. A rare defensive lapse allowed the Galway men a lifeline which they duly took with a well taken goal. This lead to a collective case of the jitters, and only for Stephen Mckeogh’s timely goal line interception a second goal would surely have gone in. A third goal-bound effort was thwarted when Keeper Barry Newell bravely raced from his line to narrow the angle and force the ball wide. The 65 was cleared and with it the immediate threat. In fairness to them this was the only lapse for the entire game and having survived it, they went in at half-time with a four point lead and the knowledge of a steady wind at their back.
Within seconds of the re-start David Hussy charged onto an up-field ball to put the ball through for Keary, one on one with the keeper Gavin dropped a shoulder to lean one way before coolly side-footing the ball past the keeper. From then on the only way Castlebar were going to lose was a massive loss of concentration, which comes from an easing off of pressure. Such collapses and remarkable comebacks are not unheard of in Hurling and it is to their credit that the lads continued to play with the passion and conviction that the showed at the outset. The forward line was the first line of defence, with David Hussy in particular making the Galway men work for every clearance. Shane O’Connor switched from the forty to the edge of the square and was a constant threat. In the half forwards Emmett and Daithi Condon worked for every ball. Daithi was having an excellent game all round, before his game was cut short with an injury as he was cut down while about to score. The dead leg sustained ultimately saw him limp off, but Gavin pointed the free for what was the sealing score - sore limbs like that somehow feel less painful in the knowledge of what had just been achieved, as he slowly made his way to the line a grimace of pain was replaced by a winning smile.
Sean Callaghan added two more points and at the back no mistakes were going to be allowed. Westport’s Colm Forrestal was resolute and cleared time and again, while Captain Michael Donoghue showed the bravery and physical presence he is known for in dealing with any threat from the full forward or balls into the square. The half back line continued as before and was outstanding. Michael Byrnes and Will O’Halloran, (in their first time together in midfield), gave every last ounce for the win, Will in particular must have been close in the reckoning for man of the match. The final goal threat from Letterfrack was stooped with a point blank save from Barry Newell, and then the champagne hurling started to flow. Playing with assurance Gerry Whyte- who again was outstanding, an inspiring figure- was calmly passing the ball across the back line to Johnny Mullins who linked with Stephen McDonagh, he in turn fed Kilmeena man Eamon Higgins who beat two men before agonisingly seeing the ball grease the wrong side of the post for what would have been a classic score.
The biggest roar of the day was reserved for the introduction of Club Chairman, (and Galway United’s biggest fan) Willie Furey, who was introduced along with Leon Vaughan, both of whom were unfortunate not to end up on the score sheet.
It was fitting however that the final say went the man of the match. In a game where he showed his real class, Gavin Keary won ball in mid-filed and set off on a run leaving Galway men in his wake he was making his way toward goal, it was evident that he was looking for a team-mate to set up for what would have a lifelong memory, an All-Ireland winning score, no such player was available due to tight marking and at the end of a forty yard run he almost apologetically took the score himself dissecting the posts from thirty yards to bring the final score to 3-13 to 1-5.
The Final whistle brought and outbreak of unrivalled celebrations as Coach Kevin O’Connor rushed on to congratulate his team and the fans started to make their way out of the stand. History was made, the Colleges first All-Ireland Championship win, (the last national hurling title in 2000 was in the league) and these guys were going to make the most of it. As mentioned the presence of GAA President Sean Kelly was a highlight and the presentation of the cup is a picture that Captain Mickey D will cherish for a long time.
The President even joined the team for the after presentation pictures- there’s one for the books Mr Kelly in the middle of Mayo Hurling team celebrating an All-Ireland victory being lead by Veteran Stephen McKeogh in a rousing chorus of "CHAMPEEONAYS, CHAMPEEONAYS".
The lads had their moment in the sun but special mention must be made of the man behind it all. Kevin O’ Connor .The Kerryman paces the sideline with an intensity and passion that has to be seen to be believed. He instilled a sense of belief and desire to will in the team that ultimately meant this day was bound to come to fruition. In phone calls from an ecstatic family back home it became apparent what this victor meant to him.
In glancing around his celebrating he remarked that this will be a day these guys will never forget- and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.
It has been a great hurling Voyage, throughout the year it has taken us to Sligo, Athlone and Tralee in the league. In the Championship we had to overcome Marino College Dublin and University of Ulster Coleraine/Magee College Derry. While Letterfrack had an equally difficult route to the final, it was great to have a local derby at the end of it all, (I’m informed it’s the first Hurling All-Ireland between two Connaught Outfits), it’s unfortunate for them that they came up against a Castlebar team that got it all right on the day as they are a fine team (it’s their second year coming runner up in this Competition).
GMIT@ Castlebar now join the impressive company of Athlone I.T. And N.U.I. Maynooth as holders of the Fergal Maher cup which was inaugurated in 2002.
The lads would like to thank Breaffy GAA Club for the generous use of their Ballyheane facilities. Castlebar Mitchels for assistance on many fronts and their Sponsors Rocky’s Bar, Brant Rock and C.B.E.
Kevin, Mickey D and all the crew, from everyone in the college thanks for a great year of Hurling, Thanks for the memories and Congratulations.