Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
INPHO Niall Gilligan and Davy Fitzgerald won All-Ireland club medals together in 1996.
# The Old Stagers
'Two brilliant servants for the club' - Davy, Gilly, the 'Bridge and chasing Clare glory
Davy Fitzgerald and Niall Gilligan will be at the heart of Sixmilebridge’s efforts tomorrow to land the Clare title.

SIX DAYS AFTER seeing their All-Ireland hopes end in Croke Park in a thriller against Tipperary, a group of Wexford players were watching on in Cusack Park.

They had travelled to Clare for the weekend as the recovery from that painful defeat continued. 

While that hurt stayed with them, they watched on as their manager was back patrolling the sideline at the Ennis venue.

Doubt may have hung over Davy Fitzgerald’s county future at the time, those marathon treks to the south-east viewed as a major stumbling block, but he was back in club mode.

In January he had formally been rubber-stamped as the coach of the Sixmilebridge hurlers for 2019. For all the time and effort he invested into shaping Wexford’s season that yielded a cherished Leinster title and a major assault on the All-Ireland series, he was still putting in plenty hours in O’Garney Park with his home club. 

On that Saturday evening of the August Bank Holiday weekend, Sixmilebridge breezed past Clarecastle by 18 points. That ticked the box in their opening championship assignment. They were up and running.

The debate raged on as to Fitzgerald’s 2020 vision for Wexford until word filtered out on 26 September that he had nailed his colours to the mast for a further two years. But throughout that uncertainty his focus on Sixmilebridge was unwavering.

“Davy’s been there since the start of the year, everything was taken into account the fact that Wexford were where there were,” says Syl O’Connor, the GAA commentator for Clare FM and a lifelong Sixmilebridge member.

“In fairness to Fitzy he made a tremendous effort now to make himself available at every given opportunity to be coaching the ‘Bridge and once Wexford were out of the championship, he was fully devoted to that.”

davy-fitzgerald-returns-to-club-hurling Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Davy Fitzgerald in action for Sixmilebridge against Cratloe in 2011. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

If 3 August saw Fitzgerald commence the Sixmilebridge championship journey, it similarly took a while for Niall Gilligan to start an active role for this year with their senior side.

At 43 years of age he opted at the outset of this campaign to regrade to the club’s intermediate team. Not that he took a peripheral role there.

“Not only did he play intermediate but he was a selector on the team and he was a coach to the team,” says O’Connor.

“Took on that role this year and absolutely thoroughly enjoyed it. He was just brilliant. He has been there and done that, the fact that a person of the calibre of Gilly would do that was massive for those players.”

Sixmilebridge’s intermediate ambitions were only stifled in a county semi-final. Gilligan’s career has been one of stunning longevity but while he has witnessed plenty experiences, a loss after a penalty shootout to Broadford was a novel one in hurling terms for him.

The two Sixmilebridge adult teams work hand in hand, training together and drawing from the same pool of players. The intermediate year may have ended but the senior management reasoned that the presence of their evergreen forward could serve as a nice boost to the system ahead of pivotal knockout games.

So for the quarter-final meeting with Éire Óg Ennis and semi-final clash against Inagh-Kilnamona, Gilligan entered the finale of those matches off the bench. Sixmilebridge won both with three points and if it’s difficult to use an exact metric to determine the value of Gilligan, then his presence was certainly a useful asset in prevailing in tight and tense encounters.

And that leads Sixmilebridge to county final day tomorrow. Fitzgerald on the sideline as coach, Gilligan likely to begin on the bench as a playing option. It’s 23 years since they were both sharing in the club’s greatest day, a 5-10 to 2-6 triumph over Antrim’s Dunloy on St Patrick’s Day. Fitzgerald was goalkeeper in Croke Park, Gilligan came off the bench to rifle over three second-half points.

niall-gilligan-and-liam-sheedy-1491997 © Patrick Bolger / INPHO Niall Gilligan in action against Liam Sheedy in the 1997 All-Ireland senior hurling final. © Patrick Bolger / INPHO / INPHO

They have had their golden All-Ireland moments with Clare before Fitzgerald embarked on the coaching trail with June’s lifting of the Bob O’Keeffe Cup completing a unique personal collection of the four biggest managerial accolades on offer in the county game.

Gilligan hung up his county hurley in January 2010 but that transpired only to be for the senior ranks. In September 2011 he was toasting an All-Ireland intermediate victory with the Banner. A month later he suffered disappointment on a sodden day as Crusheen bettered Sixmilebridge in the county decider, Gilligan providing three-quarters of the 0-4 tally they mustered.

At 35 years of age, Gilligan could have been forgiven for closing his club chapter at that juncture having conquered the county, Munster and All-Ireland stages.

But he has simply kept playing, clearly in thrall to the sport with hurling having a magnetic hold that draws him back in every season.

For a storied club Sixmilebridge endured a lean period after their 2002 title, Gilligan shouldering the playing load to keep them pushing forward. In 2013 he got his reward, the 37-year-old shooting 1-6 to take down Newmarket-on-Fergus.

In 2015 he surpassed that by standing out as a 39-year-old producing an immaculate display of free-taking in the win over Clonlara, chalking up 0-13 and carrying home the man-of-the-match award with him. The scoring rates dropped in 2017 but he was still celebrating and featuring in a two-game final edition with Clooney-Quin.

Exclusive Six
Nations Analysis

Get Murray Kinsella’s exclusive analysis of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign this spring

Become a Member

pat-o-donnell-presents-the-man-of-the-match-award-to-niall-gilligan Gareth Williams / INPHO Niall Gilligan with the man-of-the-match award after the 2015 county final. Gareth Williams / INPHO / INPHO

The current good times have kept him going, the potential for success is a potent driving force. John O’Meara took over the Sixmilebridge job in the winter of 2012. When the club won the 2000 Munster final against Mount Sion, Gilligan inflicted the most damage on the Waterford outfit with a brilliant return of 1-8 and O’Meara was a capable foil alongside him in that full-forward line. The two are close friends, the manager twisting the arm of the veteran attacker to keep returning in recent times.

manager-john-omeara-and-niall-gilligan-of-sixmilebridge-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO John O'Meara and Niall Gilligan celebrating Sixmilebridge's 2013 Clare final replay win. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

The resilience and persistence is of no surprise to O’Connor, long acquainted with Gilligan. They provided the Clare FM soundtrack together for the 2013 All-Ireland win.

“You wouldn’t look at his age when you see him coming onto the field, you’d look at a fella that if he gets half an opportunity he’s going to take it,” says O’Connor.

“It was a brilliant move and it would be unbelievable on Sunday if he did make an appearance.”

theclareherald / YouTube

The involvement of two of Sixmilebridge’s most celebrated names adds another layer of interest to tomorrow’s game. Cratloe enter with a team bristling with talent. The two clubs live side by side. One of them has featured in nine out of the last ten Clare deciders – 2016 the exception – but they have never met when the Canon Hamilton trophy was set to be handed out at full-time.

There are connections interwoven between the clubs. Cratloe selector Mike Deegan’s wife is from Sixmilebridge, as is the husband of Cratloe secretary Deirdre Chaplin. Tim Crowe is the manager of the ‘Bridge, his son-in-law Michael Hawes will start full-back for Cratloe.

The pairing carries huge potential and at the heart of the action will be a pair of Banner veterans.

“One life, one club, that certainly epitomises what that’s about when you look at those two lads alone and the journey they’ve been on over the last 25 years,” says O’Connor.

“They’ve won it all with Clare. You could just imagine Gilly getting ready to come in on Sunday on the sideline with Davy there with him. Look at the journey they’ve been on and they’re now in the same place where they started. Two brilliant servants for the club.”

Andy Dunne and Murray Kinsella join Gavan Casey to preview Ireland-Samoa, and discuss the utter farce of the World Cup falling foul of Typhoon Hagibis.

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment

    Leave a commentcancel