INPHO Maigh Cuillinn and Westport celebrated county glory.
new faces
'It energises the whole thing again' - The Galway and Mayo champs setting out in Connacht
Westport and Maigh Cuillinn face off in the Connacht championship tomorrow.

FOR THE FIRST time in 45 years, the Connacht club senior football championship is guaranteed a new champion before a ball has been kicked or a handpass thrown.

There have been a dozen new winners since then but 1977 was the last time the competition has begun with no past champion headlining the line-up of contenders. And just like the 2023 inter-county draw, the superpowers of Connacht football are all left on one side to take lumps out of each other.

Galway champions Moycullen and Mayo winners Westport meet for their provincial senior debuts at Castlebar on Sunday, with the winners to face Roscommon rulers Strokestown.

Moycullen and Westport are two clubs that have experienced rapid growth over recent years, following on from All-Ireland intermediate successes in 2008 and 2017 respectively. Moycullen, positioned just 10km outside Galway city at the gateway to Connemara, have seen incremental increases in membership to around 600, while Westport have more than doubled their membership from that figure across the past decade.

You can only imagine the squeeze for pitch space to the extent that both clubs have purchased land for expansion, with Westport the beneficiaries of a €1m donation from a local family.

In Moycullen, there has always been a strong sporting tradition in the parish. Allied with population growth through housing estates developed to accommodate those commuting to and from Galway for work and a club ready to facilitate that extra demand for a sporting outlet, then you have a recipe for success.

“We’ve senior football, senior hurling, we’ve a Super League basketball team, handball, so we’re a sporting parish and we’ve a good bunch of people and probably punch above our weight,” said club chairman Paul Clancy, a two-time All-Ireland-winning footballer with Galway.

paul-clancy INPHO Galway All-Ireland winner Paul Clancy. INPHO

That much is certainly true. The club’s senior footballers won their first county title in 2020, while the hurlers won the intermediate title in 2021, sparking a dual senior run this summer.

“We share a facility, hurling, football, camogie, and LGFA as well, so you can imagine in the peak summer there’s a lot of demands on our pitches.

“Our population has increased and then we’ve good numbers through the club. We’re going from U6s to senior and by next year we’ll have two teams at each grade all the way up.

“We probably haven’t got that level of support in terms of capital grants yet but we’re just organising ourselves now for 2023 to get going on a new development.”

Both clubs have the right age profile, with an influx of young talent, although Moycullen haven’t won the underage titles of Westport. The Mayo club have had some run of firsts: that All-Ireland intermediate title, a debut U21 title also won in 2017, and an inaugural minor title in 2018, a decade on from not being able to field a team at minor.

They had been competing with Breaffy for the inglorious label as the Mayo of Mayo football but no longer. At the ninth time of asking, senior final victory came their way, taking down clubs with the history and tradition of 72 Mayo SFC titles behind them in the knockout stages.

Their players made up one-third of Mayo’s 2018 All-Ireland U21 finalists, plus Rory Brickenden on the panel, with all bar the ineligible Colm Moran now starting for this Westport team. Four of the starting team played on the Rice College side which reached a Hogan Cup final the same year.

rory-brickenden Tom Maher / INPHO Westport's Rory Brickenden. Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Moycullen run into the might of Salthill/Knocknacarra at underage grades but remain competitive and it will mean plenty to them that they edged their West Board rivals in this year’s senior final.

After their 2020 breakthrough title celebrations were dampened down by Covid restrictions, they got to celebrate with the full bells and whistles this time, although a weather warning rained off plans for a Monday tour of the village.

“From a club point of view, the Covid year was a disaster because we only had 100 or 200 in so maybe it was a bit of a sanitised county final. But at the same time, we had a lot of people home, a lot of players around, so there were pros and cons to it.

“This time, we put the county final behind us fairly quickly in some ways because there is that two-week turnaround. To get Westport and to go up to Castlebar, it energises the whole thing again.”

All told, their own routes of progression are working well for their underage players. They have had their own transition even since 2020, with eight changes to their starting team in the space of just two years. Their team remains backboned by the three Kelly brothers, with Galway captain Seán operating in a more attacking role than his no.3 duties for Galway this summer.

sean-kelly Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Galway's Sean Kelly. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“Seán would’ve always played in the forwards. For the club, he would’ve started off as a corner-forward but he’s developed into such a brilliant athlete and player. In some ways, Seán has to sacrifice his own game. He ended up full-back for Galway because the full-back got injured. Seán slots in at midfield, he’s just so versatile he can pretty much mix it anywhere on the pitch.

“To have that spine of Kellys, we knew they were coming from a good way back, it’s important for us as a club when we have both them and the other lads coming through, we have the facilities and structures in place that they can get the most out of playing for their club.

“We got promoted from junior to intermediate last year and eight of that team have found their way onto the senior team so it’s been a good progression from our U19s to junior to promotion to intermediate onto the senior team. That’s really our pathway.

“We’re getting good development through. Michael Maughan went from U19 last year to wing-back on the seniors. Same with Conor Corcoran. Two of our backs there. We have a nice pathway through for those lads and they’re extremely dedicated.”

In fact, Moycullen have produced two captains still in with a chance of lifting the Shane McGettigan Cup: Moycullen’s inspirational scorer-in-chief Dessie Conneely and Eoin Walsh, captain of London title-holders St Kiernan’s, who welcome St Mary’s Kiltoghert over from Leitrim to Ruislip in the other quarter-final on Saturday.

Both sides have had their arrivals to the area over the years – Owen Gallagher (Antrim), Neil Walsh (Cavan), and Tom Clarke (Mayo) for Moycullen, Liam Shevlin (Louth) and Conor McGraynor (Wicklow) for Westport – but with the likes of Walsh going the other direction, it remains a two-way street.

“Lots of our lads go to college in NUIG, then they head off, then they come back so we have a good bit of a churn that way,” said Clancy. “A good thing is if you can hook people in, they’ll go away, do whatever they need to do, then they’ll come back. That’s been the model.”

Aidan Claffey travelled back from America to play a part in the final victory. Former Galway footballer Peter Cooke missed the 2020 victory due to work commitments in the US but the 2022 match-winner has been local this year.

“I think people might have misread Peter’s situation. Peter’s been around for the summer. He does go to the States alright for work but he’s been around. We got a good laugh at the transatlantic headlines in the paper and Peter Cooke hadn’t gone outside an eight-mile radius of Moycullen!”

In Clancy’s playing days, a win or two in the group stages was an achievement for Moycullen. Now, their high fliers train their sights on provincial glory.

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