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'It's been a long journey' - From war-torn Iraq to All-Ireland glory with Leitrim hurlers

Zak Moradi scored a point as Leitrim lifted the Lory Meagher Cup at Croke Park.

Kurdish-Iranian refugee Zak Moradi helped Leitrim to their first ever All-Ireland title.
Kurdish-Iranian refugee Zak Moradi helped Leitrim to their first ever All-Ireland title.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

HELPING LEITRIM DELIVER All-Ireland hurling glory in Croke Park on Saturday rounded off a remarkable journey for Iraqi-born hurler Zak Moradi.

Moradi scored a point off the bench during the extra-time defeat of Lancashire in the Lory Meagher Cup final, securing the county’s first-ever national title in either code.

“It was unbelievable, it was an amazing feeling it was enjoyable for everybody,” he tells The42.

“It made it extra special when it went to extra-time as well. That’s the first time ever for a Leitrim hurling team to win a cup so it was nice to be part of the first team to do it.

“I had 24 family members at the game. The whole lot of them were there, it was great. And I had my brother in Sweden watching it on Youtube. I probably got a thousand messages of congratulations.

“It’s not all about us winning it but in general it’s great for promoting the game in Leitrim because you might get a few kids playing hurling instead of playing football.

“The last two days were busy – drinking and celebrating,” he smiles. “I’m taking it a little bit easy today.”

Moradi’s family are Kurdish-Iranians who hail from the mountainous region in Iran, close to the Iraqi border. When the Iraq-Iran border kicked off in 1980, his parents and siblings fled to Ramadi in central Iraq.

That’s where Zak was born in 1991, but his family were forced to leave the country in the wake of the September 11 attacks with tensions simmering between the US and Iraq, which was under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. His brother, who worked for the UN, helped the family engineer a move to Ireland in 2002. A year later, the Americans invaded Iraq.

When they arrived in Leitrim, Moradi was introduced to the sport in school by county hurler Clement Cunniffe.

A year later, the club team he played on won the Leitrim U14 Feile title and Moradi recalls doing a newspaper interview with former county footballer Colin Regan, who now works with the GAA.

I remember I said I wanted to play in Croke Park. That’s when I was only 12. The headline was, ‘It’s a long road from Iran to Croke Park’. I still have that paper at home. That came into my head on Saturday. You look back 16 or 17 years later and it’s just… It’s been a long journey.

“It’s not often you get to play in Croke Park and win something there. Down in Leitrim we don’t win much in hurling. When we win it means a lot to us.”

Declan Molloy celebrates with the Lory Meagher Cup Declan Molloy celebrates with the Lory Meagher Cup. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Veteran Cunniffe was in the Leitrim forward line at the weekend, while his father Martin was their manager. Moradi battled a back injury for most of the season, which restricted him to a couple of cameos during the league.

“I was dying to get on,” he says of his appearance just after the hour mark. “I’ve had a bad back injury all year round. I didn’t play any of the league games, I played two minutes here and there. It’s only in the last couple of weeks I’m back to 100%.”

He’s since moved to Tallaght where he works for a pharmaceutical company. While he plays his club hurling with Dublin SHC side Thomas Davis, Moradi still makes the lengthy commutes back to Leitrim for training.

We train on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’d leave my house at 4.15pm, I’d pick up one or two lads on the way and by the time I go training and finish I won’t get home until about 12.30am.

“That’s twice a week and then you’ve a match on the weekend. You’re playing with your club in between that as well. I’m not the only one, everybody’s in the same boat as me. With all the hard work we put in with Leitrim over the years, it kind of paid off nicely.”

Leitrim tasted defeat in the Lory Meagher final – hurling’s fifth tier – at Croke Park two years ago but put that result right on their second trip to the decider.

“We lost in the 2017 final of the Lory. I’m playing with them since 2012. We had bad years. There was one year I don’t think we won a game, we were getting beat by around 25, 20 points every game.

We’ve the same lads, we kept at it and we stuck to it. As they say, you have to keep putting the work in. If you don’t put in the work you won’t achieve anything.

“We were completely written off. Someone said they were listening to the radio and they said Lancashire were going to win by 15 points. This time when we went in it was just about concentrating on the game.

“Two years ago there was too much build-up to it. Lads couldn’t believe they were playing in Croke Park. In 2017 it was just nice to get to Croke Park, it was the first time a Leitrim hurling team were playing there. This time it was about winning it and putting Leitrim on the map. It was just a great feeling.

Enda Moreton and Liam Phelan celebrate after the game Enda Moreton and Liam Phelan celebrate after the game. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I’m just delighted for the managers Paddy O’Connor and Martin Cunniffe, they’re involved with the Leitrim hurling senior team for about 30 years.”

The victorious Leitrim side were presented to the crowd at half-time during the county’s All-Ireland SFC qualifier game against Clare in Carrick on Shannon on Sunday.

“That was amazing,” Moradi says. “There was a couple of thousand at that game and even all the Clare supporters stood up and clapped for us for about five minutes and cheered us on. It was an unreal feeling.

You’d only get that down in Leitrim. We said we’d go back and support the footballers, there would have been a few of them that played with us.”

Leitrim footballers Pearce Dolan and Cathal McCrann were part of the hurling squad earlier in the year before they received call-ups from Terry Hyland.

“A lot of the lads on the football team have played hurling so we’d know them. Leitrim is a small county and everyone would know each other. Even, I was on the way back to Dublin this morning with one of the lads and we passed a car with a Leitrim reg.

“I said, ‘Check to see who’s that with the Leitrim reg.’ He threw his head out the window.

“‘Oh that’s yer man, he’s from Aughawillan.’

“It’s just funny down in Leitrim the way everybody knows each other. It was just a great atmosphere when we went back down to Leitrim, all the pubs were giving us free drinks and it was great.”

After years of toiling away in the backwaters of the inter-county game, the victory over Lancashire was a huge boost for hurling in the county.

There were times…I remember a match a few years ago we went out and got beat by 27 points. I was just like, ‘This is just so hard.’ When you went out the week after and won a game it was all forgotten about, it was all back to positive things and the negative things just went out the door.

“Commitment is a problem for the weaker counties. Especially when you’re not winning, it’s hard to keep the same lads interested. A lot of your good players mightn’t play with the county. It’s tough, it’s not easy.”

Zak Moradi Moradi in action against Lancashire. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“We went out to play against Lancashire in the first game and they just sent down a referee, no umpires or linesmen. It was a disaster. We lost that game because they got two or three points – it was their umpire giving them!

The referee wasn’t sure if it was a point, he was running down to one the umpires. The fella was from Lancashire, he was wearing a Lancashire jersey with the shorts and socks on, and he was doing umpire.

“You wouldn’t even get that in fecking Junior C in Dublin, nevermind inter-county level. We made a big complaint to Croke Park and they said they’d make sure it wouldn’t happen again. If that happened in football there would be murder.

We went out to play hurling matches over the years. Once they put out in a field in Cavan, you wouldn’t put your fucking cow on it, he couldn’t eat the grass it was that bleeding long!

“After the match all you wanted was a hot shower after the game and next thing the showers were cold. That’s how you get sick after games. Simple things like that need to be fixed to treat you a bit better.”

Moradi concluded by issuing a plea for the GAA to give better financial support the weaker counties. Leitrim had a 36-man panel this summer and refused a county board request to cut the panel to 30 players.

“The managers in all fairness stuck with it and said, ‘No, we’re not going to cut anybody because we’re trying to promote hurling in Leitrim so we’re not going to tell anyone to feck off.’

“The lads were training all year with us so it was just nice for the lads who haven’t missed out on a training session, rather than just dropping them because of what’s in the GAA rulebook, a matchday panel of 26. They should make it 36 because it’s better for the weaker counties.

Fergal Earley celebrates celebrates after the game Fergal Earley celebrates celebrates after the game. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It’s easier because if you’re playing with Dublin, they have the money. They have an A and B team. Because there’s so much money in Dublin they can look after the B team with gear and expenses.

“Unfortunately in counties like Leitrim and Sligo, the money isn’t there. It would be very hard for them to have a panel of 36 or 40 because it would cost a lot of money to run between expenses, getting fed after training and the rest.

“GAA need to look into giving more money to the weaker counties, taking a bit out of the pot.

“Money is the big issue with the weaker counties, especially in Leitrim. People might say, ‘Money doesn’t kick a ball over the bar.’ But it can buy you a lot of footballs though!

“Same in hurling. If you have only two or three sliotars and you’re looking after 30 lads it’s not going to work. But if the money is there you can buy hundreds of sliotars.”

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‘You couldn’t open your mouth about Saddam Hussein. He was the God in Iraq’

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Kevin O'Brien

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