Newmarket Celtic's Eoin Hayes. Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE
holy grail

How a town's football and GAA clubs have shaped a corner of Clare on brink of local history

This weekend’s FAI Junior Cup final is an historic occasion for a Clare club that’s 55 years in existence.

NEWMARKET-ON-FERGUS’s football and GAA clubs have helped shape a corner of Clare on the brink of local history.

This evening, Newmarket Celtic are hoping to end their 55-year quest for the holy grail in Irish junior soccer.

They have a very grown-up relationship with the town’s GAA powerhouse, not to mention attitude towards alcohol, while an inspirational coaching ticket have also brought them to their first ever FAI Junior Cup showpiece.

“This is our World Cup final,” Liam Murphy enthuses ahead of the showdown with St Michael’s of Tipperary in Jackman Park.

He is Newmarket’s current media officer and vice-chairman, and also took charge of the first team for close to a decade before they eventually made the breakthrough at national level.

An estimated 1,500 fans from the town are expected to make the near-30km trip today, and Murphy will be among them with one of his three sons, five-year-old Darach now a Newmarket die-hard with his favourite red jersey signed by all of the players.

Former League of Ireland defender Paddy Purcell is at the helm, supported by coaches Steve Austin and Eoin O’Brien, the trio helping engineer a stunning campaign which has also seen them reach the Munster Junior Cup final next month.

“Everyone started playing the game as kids because it was fun, that has been the cornerstone of everything we have done with them,” Purcell reasons.

“We laid out our plans from the start, what was expected and the demands that would be placed on them in order to succeed, but at the end of it all everything we do with the players has an emphasis on being enjoyable. Otherwise, what is the point?”

Striker and experienced Ireland Amateur international Eoin Hayes can testify to the benefits of that ethos.

The 33-year-old teaches English and History in a secondary school 40 minutes east of the town and he has just bid farewell to his group of
Sixth Year students when he takes a call from The 42.

“We were going through the poetry of Paula Meehan, it’s full on and the amount of different classes is great because it keeps your mind going,” he says.

“The poetry is really enjoyable, it helps that you have that other focus. The students know about the match but it’s not like being in the thick of it in the town with all the excitement.

“There is a good feeling around the place. Growing up in the era of drink bans and all this, none of that exists anymore. Young lads can enjoy their football, imagine that?

fai-junior-cup-media-event From left: St Michael's AFC manager John Cremins alongside Jimmy Carr. Eoin Hayes of Newmarket Celtic and manager Paddy Purcell. Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

“Maybe it’s a control thing with some people in Irish sport. Coaches want control of how you live your life because it would make them feel more comfortable going into matches.

“But if players are happier they can perform better and that has worked for us.”

That is part of the reason why the relationship between Newmarket Celtic and Newmarket GAA has improved in recent years.

Hayes is a former Clare hurler who was part of Davy Fitzgerald’s first senior panel and also had success at underage level, winning the 2009 U-21 All-Ireland before going on to taste club glory when Newmarket-on-Fergus won a county title in 2012.

Six years later the dual star of a different kind was named FAI Junior international of the year, an accolade teammate Stephen Kelly claimed in 2015 while also combining hurling and soccer.

“It has become a hugely positive relationship between the clubs in recent years but that probably wouldn’t have always been there before,” Hayes admits.

“There is a mutual respect there now between both. The hurling is played to a really high level and the soccer is too.”

Different codes living in harmony is crucial, vice-chairman Murphy adds, yet he explains how a threat has emerged in more recent years from within the League of Ireland academy structure, with young players being poached from their underage system and then struggling to rediscover their passion once they return.

“Some kids can be promised the sun, moon and stars then get released at 19 and come back deflated,” he admits.

“Some will stop playing altogether and we try our best to keep them involved. Of course you don’t want to deny lads an opportunity or stop them but losing the most talented young lads is going to have a detirmental effect, especially on the smaller rural clubs.

“We’re fortunate in a sense with the numbers we have, we can cope but it still hurts. Of course you can’t have it every way and you want to see them develop at the highest standard.”

Young centre back Harvey Cullinan is a more traditional case, the 20-year-old returning to his hometown club last summer after leaving Sheffield United.

Instead of following up interest from the League of Ireland, the defender opted instead to play alongside some childhood friends.

“I actually did my best to convince him not to,” Purcell laughs. “I told him he was too good but he was adamant it was what he wanted to do, so once he made that clear we explained what we would try to do for him so he could enjoy his football.”

Historic success for the club is now within grasp.

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