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The Mayo and Tyrone stars toiling in the dark for their day in the sun

Tyrone’s Damian Casey and Mayo’s Shane Boland play in Croke Park today in the lower tier hurling finals.

Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

AN OPPORTUNITY TO play in Croke Park was always guaranteed. Finish in the top two and it’s enshrined in the calendar. The prospect of playing a game in their home stadium was far less straightforward. 

It was March when the Mayo hurling management went public with their frustrations at not being able to play their Christy Ring Cup home fixtures at Hastings Insurance MacHale Park. The County Board maintained they were following the recommendations of the head groundsman. The story broke on a Tuesday morning, the next day it emerged the footballers trained there that night.

“It was in the media a good bit, but we just spoke about it for 15 minutes one evening and that was it,” recalls captain Shane Boland.

“We said it would be nice to play in the county grounds. To get that opportunity.

“It is a quality surface but honest to god, it didn’t cause us much bother. We said we need to win the next game no matter what. If we didn’t win that, we’d no chance. It was disappointing at the time but there was more focus by the media than us.”

shane-boland-and-jason-coyne-celebrate-after-the-game Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Eventually, the county board relented and Mayo overcame Derry in the Castlebar stadium to secure a spot in the Christy Ring Cup final this Saturday. They entered the championship amidst significant squad turnover and off the back of a winless league campaign. At the bottom of a steep hill, same old story.

Venue stress? Nothing new there. During the early portion of Boland’s career, they struggled to tie down a training pitch. Often they used the back pitch in MacHale Park which, it should be said, the footballers also had to occasionally resort to. Now they train in the Connacht Centre of Excellence or Tooreen, his home club and a huge heartland of Mayo hurling.

Their first championship outing was a home game against Kildare, their opponents in Saturday’s final. “We were absolutely hammered out the gate,” admits Boland. 

Suddenly, it clicked. They powered to a win in Aughrim. Additions like former Galway panellist Joe Mooney and the return of Dublin and St Jude’s duo Joe and Ger McManus helped, as did Boland notching 0-34 across four games. Most importantly, the integral mindset of their county hurlers stayed true. 

While it is tempting to be distracted by imbalances or extrinsic distractions, it is also counterproductive. A small but strong division have consistently driven Mayo hurling regardless of favour or resources.  That was the takeaway message the night they addressed the MacHale Park situation. 

“The best response for us was to go and win that game. No point kicking up a fuss and going out to be knocked out.

“We have our own group. The fans that come really help. Especially in Ballina against Sligo with a small stadium, you can really hear them and in fairness, Sligo are on the up and they travelled well too. It made a big difference. It definitely does. The last day the support was unreal.”

Derek Walsh’s outfit are huge underdogs against Kildare on Saturday, having been beaten by 30 points in their prior meeting and only coming up from the Nickey Rackard Cup last year. Their opponents that day were Tyrone. 

keith-higgins-lifts-the-nicky-rackard-cup Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

Eoghan Ruadh Dungannon’s Damian Casey was captain. He is well familiar with the plight of hurling in a football-obsessed county. Spoken of in patronising tones or not spoken of at all. County ground frustrations? For them, it started with the club. Eoghan Ruadh, solely hurling, are 24 times county champions. For much of their existence, they were without a home. 

“Four or five years ago we got our own facility,’ recalls Casey.

“Before that, we were using a local park. It wasn’t full size. It only worked for underage. That is where we trained for a long, long time.

“We used local pitches for games. Clarkes, Donaghmore, Edendork, neighbouring football clubs. They had their own underage teams and priorities understandably. We were running about trying to get a field here there and everywhere. Then we got our own and we were using a portacabin for changing rooms. Now we have a changing area. A walkway, a ball wall. It is fantastic to see.” 

Football was his first flirtation but eventually, neighbours convinced him to try the small ball. When Casey first joined the club, the lowest underage level was U12s. Now they have ‘the booster seat’, a programme for U6s up. A group of dedicated and tireless volunteers bring them to tournaments up and down the country. 

These are the safe houses that keep the sport alive in much of the country. Casey grew up in the 1990s. That Tyrone team trained wherever they could, even if it meant car parks.  Striving on the margins. 

“When I was younger I was pissed off about the treatment or difference. At the same time, the footballers won the All-Ireland last year and they were fully deserving. They train hard, work hard. They deserve that platform.

“They also pick from 48 clubs. We pick from four senior teams. For a county team, we are doing all right. The vast majority are made up of two teams. A few lads from Naomh Colum Cille and Omagh too. 

“If we had double that amount of clubs, we could push on more again. We just have to drive it from within. Success breeds success and we need to push it on and get into the shop window.”

Last year Casey was forced to vent his frustrations on social media. They were without a manager and unable to plan for pre-season. Eventually, they made the shrewd appointment of Ballycastle native Michael McShane, who was also over Slaughtneil. 

That is the measure of the expectation in the lower tiers. Baby steps.

“They have been good to us the last few years,” says Casey.

“I put out that tweet. Once that was sorted to be fair, it really hasn’t been bad at all. Years gone by you were fighting for expenses and gear, things like that. I was the GPA representative.

“You don’t play for a county for that stuff but coming into a league campaign with no gear and lads have no expenses paid, out of pocket coming up the road from college.

“You are not going up to do that. You want to hurl and not worry about that nonsense. Thankfully that hasn’t been an issue the last few years. It is sorted.”

Casey and Boland are skilled sharpshooters, worthy of a grand stage. The graded competitions are not the most high-profile but they give all concerned a tangible goal and a chance to shine.

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 Little promotion or profile, loads of pride and genuine prospects for success. 

“For me when I came onto the county panel it has always been this system,” says Boland.

“There is no enjoyment in going out and getting hammered. Getting to represent your county in Croke Park, that’s what you want. As you go there is more interest. Even in the Christy Ring this year, you notice the buzz.

“A few new clubs have formed, Moytura and Ballina recently started a junior team. I think there are eight junior teams and four senior, there are more hurling teams being formed and more coming underage. Give it a few years and hopefully, they kick on to senior.”

Casey has won lower tier competitions across the league and championship. In his own bubble, that means everything. They have their identity and history. Today is a chance to add another chapter.  

“Would we compete in the top tier? Absolutely no chance. Those competitions, we won the Lory Meagher in 2012. It was a brilliant day. 2014 we won the Nickey Rackard, another great day.

“We have an aim of getting to Croke Park every year. Don’t get me wrong, we would love to be at that top table.

“We have to be realistic too. In my eyes, some of the football teams have as much chance of winning the Sam Maguire as we do the Liam MacCarthy. That is a fact, not to be disrespectful.

“Every year we aim for promotion. We use it as a building block each year. Push on, build again. Learning from better opposition as we go. 

“There is no doubt countrywide they don’t mean as much to people as the top tier does. But for us, this is everything. The 3A league was a massive, massive day for us. Now back in Croke Park, those opportunities don’t come around too often. I know the rest of the county doesn’t see it like that but it is a big day for the team and our supporters.

“For all of us, it really matters.” 

Lory Meagher Cup Longford v Louth 1pm live on YouTube Spórt TG4

Nickey Rackard Cup Roscommon v Tyrone 3pm live on YouTube Spórt TG4

Christy Ring Cup Kildare v Mayo 5pm live on YouTube Spórt TG4

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Maurice Brosnan

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