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'It's completely weird altogether' - no fans but stage set for first county senior final of 2020

Wexford hurling the focus as Shelmaliers play Naomh Éanna today in what will be a strange occasion.

Naomh Eanna and Shelmaliers players celebrate last weekend's semi-final wins.
Naomh Eanna and Shelmaliers players celebrate last weekend's semi-final wins.
Image: INPHO

WHEN PODGE CRONIN headed home last Sunday evening, he began to compute the ticket numbers in his head.

The Naomh Éanna club secretary had just witnessed Conor McDonald land a superb match-winning score to settle a breathless county senior hurling semi-final against Oulart-the-Ballagh.

The Gorey outfit’s spot in the Wexford decider was assured but just how were they going to cope with the heightened demand amongst club supporters for the precious passes that would guarantee entry to watch the game?

Cronin was factoring in the spike in interest levels that presence in a final generates and the increased focus on the weekly ticket draws they have been conducting in recent weeks, like countless other clubs scattered around the country.

And then the dilemma was taken out of their hands.

Tuesday’s message from NPHET and the Government means the gates will be shut at Chadwicks Wexford Park this afternoon.

It’s county senior final day, the first in the country for 2020, just not as Naomh Éanna and opponents Shelmaliers know it.

It was always going to be a strange occasion with only a handful of fans set to be allowed in to watch. Now the empty stand and terraces will just make the day that bit stranger.

“You’re contemplating a county senior final in an empty stadium, it makes it more surreal,” says Cronin.

“I’ve been dealing with that headache for the last couple of weeks since our first match against the Rapparees at the end of July. We’ve been only getting 40 odd tickets for each match. The first night I think there was 150 names in the draw and as we progressed, the number of people in the draw was increasing but unfortunately the number of tickets wasn’t. I think there was 250 in the draw last week for the semi-final.

“Every week people were missing out, some very good club men and women. It was hard on people. You’ve a lot of people in Gorey steeped in hurling. It’s not just our matches they’re missing, they’d travel to watch other clubs play as well just because of their interest in hurling.” 

naomh-eanna-players-ahead-of-the-game Naomh Eanna players ahead of last Sunday's game in Wexford Park Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Down the road from Gorey, they can relate at the Shelmaliers base in Castlebridge, just outside Wexford Town.

“It’s completely weird altogether,” says Shelmaliers chairman Myles Doyle.

“In a funny sort of way it solves some problem for us with the allocation of tickets but you’d rather have the problem of being able to give them to people.

“It’s extremely tough. We’d have people that would never even miss coming to a training session not alone looking at a match. We can’t give them tickets for the county final, it’s actually heartbreaking.

“We have to overlook them unfortunately and there’s so many people being overlooked. But sure there’s nothing we can do about it.”

shelmaliers-players-celebrate-after-the-game Shelmaliers players celebrating their quarter-final victory over Faythe Harriers Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Both clubs can drawn on recent experience of county finals, days that captured the magnitude of the occasion with the colour and noise and excitement.

This year is a landmark for Naomh Éanna, marking the 50th anniversary of the club’s reform. They escaped from the intermediate ranks in 2015 and fetched up in the senior final three years later. Predictably enough the locality went wild beforehand, that frenzy whipped up all the more when they went and inscribed their name on the Wexford senior hurling roll of honour for the first time.

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“We’re comparing it to two years ago when we got to our first final,” outlines Cronin.

“That was unbelievable. The whole build-up first of all. It’s not like we’ve a long history of being in county finals so people are missing the opportunity to experience that final feeling and everything that goes with it. A certain amount of the magic and routine is taken because of the restrictions enforced. The most important thing is the day itself but you’ve lads playing and their families won’t actually be in the ground to experience the day. That’s tough.”

For Shelmaliers this has been a magical decade. They pride themselves on their dual senior status, capturing a maiden hurling title in 2014 as they interrupted a run of Oulart-the-Ballagh dominance and then adding a football crown in 2018.

They’ve savoured those milestones but this is an oddity they must get their heads around.

“I’d be close enough to the players as chairman,” says Doyle.

“I was talking to a couple after training there the other night and they said even with the 200 spectators, you would still feel a bit of an atmosphere. You’d hear the reactions and things like that even with small crowds. But that’s completely gone now and the only ones you’ll hear are the subs and the backroom teams. Look it’s the same on both sides, it’s not as if one has an advantage over another.”

Covid-19 has taken plenty from their GAA routines but inadvertently it has blessed them with something too. About now would generally be the time when Naomh Éanna see their county stars back around the place after a summer of Wexford service. McDonald is the marquee name, he has club company in Davy Fitzgerald’s setup in Cathal Dunbar, Gary Molloy and Jack Cullen. Of late they have been solely Naomh Eanna players.

conor-mcdonald-and-conor-goff Conor McDonald in action for Naomh Eanna last Sunday Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Shelmaliers have a crew with the Wexford senior footballers, Brian Malone a presence that has endured for 15 seasons and 166 games at that level, setting an appearance record back in February.

brian-malone-at-half-time Shelmaliers player Brian Malone Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Rather than juggling codes, a clear run of hurling since mid-July has benefitted them.

“It’s probably been a bit of an advantage for us that Derek Kent and the county board, they made a call early to run off all the hurling together in groups of three,” outlines Doyle.

“The county football lads are with us hurling the whole time. It has to help you that they’re in the field every evening. There’s no subbing week on week off with football as well. The format is good for the dual club.”

Cronin is a principal in a local school in Gorey. He landed in the town about 20 years ago and fell in with the local club. Home is Killarney, Dr Crokes where he first set GAA roots. He watched them win a thriller in the Kerry championship last night. TG4′s coverage has been good to him this weekend with cameras following his native and adopted clubs.

That the match is the live offering today at 2pm by the station is a relief.

“Thank God for the TG4 coverage,” says Doyle.

“Now Wexford TV have been streaming a lot of games recently. But streaming is not always 100%, little things can go wrong, and at least with the TG4 coverage it’ll be perfect.

“It’s a mad GAA parish so everybody will come on board and shout us on from their couches. I’ve no doubt they will.”

If there is disgruntlement and frustration amongst supporters in both clubs, they have still come together to do their best to create a sense of anticipation for county final week.

Boxes of flags and bunting landed at Doyle’s door on Tuesday, they sold out at the shop in the Shelmaliers GAA grounds on Wednesday. On the same night in Gorey, the club members headed out in the rain to drape the town streets in Naomh Éanna colours.

There is not the same feverish enthusiasm, it all feels out of sync, the more pressing national issues hover over this game of hurling and the celebrations will be that bit more muted.

And yet it’s late August, a county senior hurling trophy is up for grabs, Naomh Éanna and Shelmaliers renewing acquaintances in a final after the group game three weeks which the former won by two points. There remains something meaningful to it all.

gary-molloy-celebrates-scoring-a-goal-in-front-of-the-oulart-the-ballagh-substitutes Gary Molloy celebrates a goal for Naomh Eanna last Sunday Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It’s such a condensed period and shorter lead-in,” says Cronin.

“But there is still that novelty because we haven’t been in many county finals. You’re meeting people on the street and they’re asking how are lads feeling, any injury news and different things like that.

“In May or June, the likelihood of any competitive GAA action was probably zero. People didn’t think there’d be any sort of a championship. So when the opportunity came in the middle of June and into July, people were just delighted to be back on the field training and having something to play for.

“12 clubs started out, ourselves and Shelmaliers are the lucky last two teams standing. I’m sure every television in Gorey will be tuned to TG4 at two o’clock on Sunday to see how the match goes.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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