‘I am so happy for them. Finally, one of the Tierneys has it!’

Galway’s Matthew Tierney captained NUIG to Sigerson Cup success last Wednesday.

Image: Seán Mac Giolla Easpaig Galway football PRO
Image: Seán Mac Giolla Easpaig Galway football PRO
Image: Seán Mac Giolla Easpaig Galway football PRO

THE CONTRAST WAS stark and borderline cruel. Intense drama on the field held the crowd captivated in Carlow while the elements endeavoured to drive them away.

Pity the weather-beaten TG4 camera crew. High and exposed facing into the blinding rain while sodden spectators sought some degree of shelter behind the camera stand. There was two minutes left in the Sigerson Cup final and two points between the sides.

With an attack building, UL’s Eoghan McLaughlin collected the ball out wide and gave in to an obvious temptation. David Clifford loomed ominously on the edge of the square and McLaughlin let it long. Route one. The ‘eff it’ play. In many ways, it is hard to flaunt it. When a talent like that is in the kitchen, let him cook.

In the ball flew and up NUIG captain Matthew Tierney soared. Or rather, out he soared. A dive rather than a jump. Not only did he secure possession, but he had the presence of mind to raise his hand and claim the defensive mark too.

Danger abated. Calm in the storm.

Minutes left, he departed prematurely thanks to a black card. It mattered little as the Galway outfit held out for their first Sigerson Cup title since 2003.

matthew-tierney Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It was a huge, huge moment,” said victorious manager Maurice Sheridan of that Tierney mark after the game. “He held his composure. He is a top-class footballer.”

This was a win six years in the making for this management team. For Sheridan, it is the culmination of a particular purpose. He was on UCG’s Sigerson Cup winning team of 1992 but repeatedly stresses he ‘was only a sub’. His father captured it as a player in the 1960s. As they gathered on the field after the final whistle, the family pride was palpable. Emanating a warmth that almost countered saturated onlookers. Almost.

“We didn’t play well in the first half but look, we got the job done. It is a fantastic win. The lads showed great spirit and a bit of character. That is what this competition is all about.”

maurice-sheridan Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

His captain celebrates to the left with a band of loyal followers. In the last 24 months, Tierney has won an U20 All-Ireland, intermediate club All-Ireland and a Sigerson Cup. All that at just 21-years of age. He was well supported every single step of the way.

“Ah,” smiles Sheridan as he watches the triumphant pictures unfold. “His dad was a great player for the club. And his brother Enda.”

At every game in the competition, the Oughterard clubman’s friends and family manned the sideline. His brother, Enda, lost out in the 2018 final. His father, Matthew, was on the losing team in 1988. They are his second port of call after the final whistle. His first was stricken opponents, making a beeline for a crestfallen McLaughlin with an outstretched hand.

Tierney is Galway’s vice-captain having been nominated for Young Player of the Year during his breakout last season. Not many saw such a stark rise coming. There was a time when very few saw him coming.

“My mother tells the story of him coming into the post office and he couldn’t see over the counter. He was small as a kid. He didn’t get a growth spurt until he was 16 or so,” laughs Eddie O’Sullivan, the club captain for their All-Ireland success in 2020.

“There is a small little road on the way into Oughterard with a good connection of houses along it. There was a gang of ten young lads there spread out over ten years and he’d be the youngest. There is a lot there to explain why he developed the way he did.

“He wasn’t tall as a kid at all. He had the experience of being the smallest and lightest man. Now he is the tallest and didn’t lose the pace or anything in between. If it was a video game, he learned in difficult mode.”

By the time he was a minor, Tierney had hit a growth spurt. At the time, the age group had just moved to U17 and thus it meant less limelight. Tierney’s club-mate, Ryan Monahan, was on the same team. They were side-by-side for club, county and college triumph.

“We knew Matthew was talented, but we’d had plenty of good minors over the years,” admits O’Sullivan. “You wouldn’t assume they were going to be your best player.”

There was a fitness test shortly after he made the jump to adult football that caught the eye. Then he came on against Mountbellew in a league game and transformed before their eyes. A quiet, hardworking kid off the field was a thunderous heavyweight on it. Attracting attention for his loose-limbed athleticism and pinpoint set-piece accuracy. Within weeks, he was indispensable.

“We played Michaels in a challenge match shortly after that. Another lad and I were driving home after the game talking to each other, and it dawned on us; ‘Matthew is probably our best player.’

“Then we played Oranmore in a league game. He had played with the U20s the day before so wasn’t starting. They started to get a run on us, and he came on wing forward. Arra, he made everyone else look like they were Junior B!

“He caught a kickout, ran the field and put it in top corner to get us the victory. We already knew he was a talented club player. Then we realised this guy would go a lot further.”

Galway midfielder Peter Cooke keenly watched Tierney walk onto the senior panel last year. He is from a neighbouring parish, Moycullen, and played with his brother Enda in the 2018 Sigerson Cup final.

“He came in off the back of that U20s great win. I’m sure he took a lot of confidence from that. He really, really impressed during the league. Every day we went out, he was in the top three or four on the pitch,” Cooke recalls.  

“He has all the natural ability. The great thing I would say is he can only get better. He really leads with how he plays in fairness more so than what he says. Actions rather than words which is always great to see in a young lad.”

peter-cooke Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

This latest success was a particularly poignant one for the Tierney family. Matt Snr was full-forward in a UCG team that lost to a Maurice Fitzgerald-inspired UCC in 1988 having been a squad member for the victorious 1984 side.

On his way home from the final, the car Tierney was travelling in struck a pole. He suffered a spinal injury and never walked again.

His love for football was such that when friends scrambled for something to do in the aftermath of the accident, their best suggestion was to approach Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, who commentated on the Sigerson Cup final, and ask if he would pay Matt a visit. The RTE commentator willingly travelled to Dún Laoghaire with the gift of a GAA history book.

The late Pádraig Kelly was a central part of that UCG team too. His sons, Eoghan, Seán and Paul, all started this week for NUIG. Two of them are on the Galway squad alongside Matthew. Eoghan’s dominant defensive display indicated he has what it takes to soon join them.

When his sons are playing, Matt is always on the sideline. Last week his wife, Marie, was sitting in the stand. The Castleisland native went to school with David Clifford’s mother, Eileen. The final was a reunion of sorts.  

O’Sullivan stresses that this is an integral part of Matthew Tierney’s rise. He is of his house.

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“Thanks to the Tierneys, Matthew is very clever. Honestly, I would say Matt Snr hasn’t missed a club game in 25 years. I’d be very biased to Matthew. A huge fan, I suppose. My old lad would have been great friends with Matt. He stayed overnight in hospital with him that time.

“Over the years, Matthew has watched so much football. He went with his father. He watched all of Enda’s games.

“After he’d go home and hear all the talk about Enda’s games. Then they watch it endlessly on TV. He is surrounded by that, absorbing it. Always thinking. I think that is why he has a great head for it.”

The further Tierney travels, the more deeply he seems invested in Oughterard. One day last year he was chatting to O’Sullivan about all things football. Before he departed, he asked O’Sullivan what his plans for the weekend.

“I said I am taking a team back to the Féile. Straight away he was in, can I go? The more the merrier. I noticed the next day; he came along and he was mad to get something out of them. There giving them a bit of cajoling, a come on. All positive stuff. That extra few per cent. He has that presence.”

kieran-molloy-with-matthew-tierney Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Cooke is currently abroad and unavailable for Joyce’s outfit. He has been looking on, longingly, as Galway and Tierney continue to build. 

“I think there is no ceiling for Matthew Tierney. I can see him going strength to strength especially with this success early in the year.”

After the final whistle on Wednesday, Tierney was washed away in a sea of TV interviews, trophy presentations, ecstatic friends and family. The stadium announcer’s desperate pleas to vacate the field fell on deaf ears. Eventually, he drifts to the halfway line, taking a moment to stand and reflect. It is not often the midfielder is out of breath. With a deep exhale and a childlike beam, he takes a long look at the spectacle in front of him.  

“Great win. Jesus… Unreal. Just so happy. We’d a good league campaign there and then we got most of the boys back. That was massive. There they are,” he nods with a laugh as the roars ring out. “I am just delighted for them. Look at them celebrating there…”

His only criticism is of his own performance. Keen to push the spotlight onto his manager and team-mates. Keen to praise their resilience and spirit.

“I suppose it was just stick in. The elements were tough, you can only do so much. Stick in. Stick to our structure and game plan. You know, grind it out.”

 Three times the Tierney’s have started in a Sigerson Cup final. In 1988, Matt Snr played his last game of football in a three-point loss. In 2018, Enda wore his father’s jersey during the warmup and fell short by a point in a thriller against UCD.

After all, their time has come.

“I was just talking to Dad and Enda; I am so happy for them. It is great to get over the line. Finally, one of the Tierneys has it!”

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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