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'He would always have been seen as a classy player' - A new Mayo forward and his club's 32-year wait

Mayo senior attacker Tommy Conroy flies the flag for his club The Neale who were long in the wilderness.

Mayo footballer Tommy Conroy.
Mayo footballer Tommy Conroy.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Updated Nov 6th 2020, 12:12 PM

IT SHOULD BE a hectic week for Declan Hughes.

Fielding ticket queries for Connacht championship games, digesting the action watched in Carrick-on-Shannon last weekend and laying down the plans for the trip to Roscommon on Sunday.

In their pocket of south Mayo this is a landmark time.

Tommy Conroy made his provincial senior bow last Sunday, the first time that The Neale enjoyed such representation with Mayo seniors on championship day in over three decades. 

Hughes is club chairman and while there is a buoyancy to the local mood this week, it is tempered by the restrictions that will keep them all at home on Sunday instead of passing through the turnstiles at Dr Hyde Park.

“It’s strange. The whole lockdown thing makes it hard, you don’t even see him (Tommy) around the place. You can’t travel to games to support him. His parents, club supporters and underage kids would be travelling to Roscommon in other times. It’s a great club for supporting that type of thing.

“If it was summertime with a Connacht semi-final, Cong would normally be a very busy little village with tourists and that, he would see a lot of people around then. Then he’d be in the ground training with the senior team, the underage might be training before but there’s none of that meeting and greeting. There’s nobody up there, the gate is locked.”

It’s odd for them to reflect on where they were 12 months ago, locked in club combat and on the Connacht title trail. A historic intermediate success in Mayo was achieved in October 2019 for their club hard on the Galway border and the edge of Lough Corrib. A few miles further north is Lough Mask. The club draws from a pool consisting of three villages – Cong, Cross and The Neale. Their grounds are just over the wall from Ashford Castle.

When that provincial honour was on offer, they were pitted against neighbours over the water in Galway’s Oughterard, who bettered them that night in Castlebar by eight points and subsequently lifted the All-Ireland last January.

Confined indoors in this Covid-dominated winter, the progression of one of their own has generated some joy and spiked interest in football.

It has been helped by the strong goalscoring mood Conroy has been in of late, putting shots in the net against Tyrone and Leitrim the past two Sunday afternoons. He also took the Tyrone defence for three points and matched that tally the week before in a thumping win over Galway.

Inter-county championship recognition is cherished even if it is occurring behind closed doors in the depths of winter.

“I only mentioned it the other night when I was doing the Lotto live online from the clubhouse myself,” says Hughes.

“It was 1988, the last one to play championship out of the club was Eddie Gibbons, he came on as a sub (against Leitrim). It was Sean Luskin before that, (the last player from The Neale to start for Mayo seniors in 1983 against Roscommon).

“It’s a long time in the history of the club to be waiting for somebody else to come along. We had lads who played league football for Mayo since and underage but championship, no.”

Conroy’s progression was well-flagged as he reached all the various staging posts. In 2017 he kicked 0-4 from play in Croke Park as Ballinrobe CS claimed an All-Ireland title. Oisin Mullin, who also enjoyed a maiden start for Mayo last Sunday, was on that schools team with Darragh Canavan part of the opposing Tyrone ranks with St Ciaran’s Ballygawley.

If his minor campaign was short-lived in Mayo that year as they were convincingly beaten by Galway, then 2018 brought a journey with U20 side that went all the way to an All-Ireland final. They lost out there to Kildare but Conroy had nailed the two insurance points that clinched the semi-final win over Derry.

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Other displays jumped out last year, 2-1 as the NUIG Freshers won an All-Ireland final in March and 0-3 as captain in July in a Connacht U20 final defeat. Recruitment from James Horan followed as he shook up his senior squad. January saw Conroy taste league football for the first time, hitting a point when introduced against Donegal. He was brought on for the Dublin, Monaghan and Kerry games, started against Meath and raised a single white flag in three of those appearances.

tommy-conroy-and-damien-duff Tommy Conroy in action against Damien Duff in the 2018 Connacht U20 football final. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“He would always have been seen as a classy player,” says Hughes.

“A great eye for goal always and he was blessed with pace. His personality, he’s in college in Galway, works locally there in O’Connor’s Spar in Cong, he’s just like anyone else when you go in the door, a quiet lad, great mannered.

“He trains hard, you’d always see him doing extra. He’d know where he wants to improve, disciplined across the board. All the young lads look up at him.

“This year we’d our underage presentation in February and we’d Aidan O’Shea up to do it along with Tommy. Aidan O’Shea said that day it won’t be too long before Tommy will be down in Breaffy giving out the presentation for the kids down there.

“He carries himself and is a great ambassador for The Neale GAA.”

aidan-oshea-celebrates-after-the-game-with-tommy-conroy Aidan O'Shea and Tommy Conroy after last weekend's win over Leitrim. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Conroy’s rise has mirrored that of his club. Lavelles were the original local team in Cong before the three villages merged to form The Neale club in 1944. Days of glory were thin on the ground for a long time but the last decade has brought the breakthroughs they long dreamed of.

John Morrin, now the Claregalway chairman, took over the team around 2000 and laid the foundations with better coaching and enhanced their levels of preparation.

The first adult title arrived at last in 2012, a goal from an injury-time free drew them level in the junior final against Ardnaree and they completed their task in extra-time.

Last October delivered that intermediate triumph over a Ballyhaunis team anchored by Keith Higgins. They didn’t add on the Connacht accolade but in the delayed 2020 season they made strides in a historic first attempt at the senior grade, escaping from the group stages and acquitting themselves well in a quarter-final loss to Westport.

Hughes was a selector in 2012, his brother Eoin the manager over the last few years. These are heady times for them.

“We’ve a project going on, we’re putting in an all-weather pitch. We’d a Mayor of the Parish fundraising campaign last year, it ran for six months, the three candidates from the different villages, they raised €164,000 between them. We need a second pitch with the numbers we have, there’s a lot of teams between ladies and mens from underage up. The club is going on in big steps, we’re putting a lot into it.”

Conroy’s climb to the Mayo senior ranks has brought them wider recognition. He has illustrated his worth to the club – the 2019 county intermediate final yielding a man-of-the-match award, firing 2-4 from play as he torched Sligo’s Geevagh in Connacht, a rampant early showing in that senior last eight game in August before Lee Keegan was sent back to stifle his influence.

ConroyTheNeale Source: Irish News Archive

Conroy’s presence imbues a sense of pride in a football community used to seeing those around them send players up to commit for the Mayo county cause.

“We were long enough looking at other clubs,” says Hughes.

“You’d be looking at Ballinrobe there they’d Donal Vaughan and before that Fergal Costello. You’d the Mortimers over the road in Shrule and Pat Kelly in Kilmaine. Enda Varley in Garrymore. You’d the Coens and a few more boys and the Connellys down in Hollymount.

“We were always looking over at these lads. We were junior as well trying to get up. Now we’re gone senior, we’ve a fabulous facility in Cong and we’ve Tommy on the Mayo seniors. I’m not boasting but it’s great to be there.”

tommy-conroy-celebrates-scoring-a-goal Tommy Conroy celebrates scoring a goal against Leitrim last weekend. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Hughes’ own son Ronan featured for the Mayo minors in an All-Ireland semi-final against Cork last August. The 17-year-old set up his own sportswear business called Hughsey Sports and will appear on The Late Late Show tonight as RTÉ shines a light on small businesses in Ireland. He’s part of the current Mayo minor squad as well with Ronan Varley while another The Neale player Fergal Sweeney was a member of the U20s last spring.

That’s the weekend warm up act on TV, on Sunday all eyes will be trained on Roscommon with a Connacht final place at stake.

Hughes works in McGrath’s Quarry in Cong where there is a sizeable Galway contingent in the workforce. With Galway already in the decider, it could be a lively Connacht final build-up next week with a local forward involved if Sunday’s result goes to their liking.

“People are excited, I know they are. Everybody’s rooting for him. People are putting up messages. It’s great to see him playing and scoring.

“It’s a pity we can’t be there but it’ll come around again and Tommy will hopefully be playing for Mayo for years to come.” 

An earlier version of this article stated Sean Wilson from The Neale played for Mayo in 1983, that should have read Sean Luskin. That has now been corrected.

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Fintan O'Toole

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