Back in the big time

'I'm not from the city myself but the emotion in winning after 47 years was amazing'

Louis Mulqueen and Liam Mellows try to recreate last year’s golden hurling memories in Galway.

Louis Mulqueen celebrates after the game with selector Paul Mitchell and Conor Kavanagh Louis Mulqueen and Conor Kavanagh celebrate last year's victory for Liam Mellows. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

EARLY NOVEMBER in Athenry and it looks as if the Liam Mellows hurling race is about to be run.

Deep in injury-time, a point down in a county semi-final. Cappataggle are on the cusp of breathing romance into to the Galway senior hurling championship by reaching their maiden final.

And then Liam Mellows haul themselves back from the cliff edge, Jack Forde and Tadhg Haran snapping over points in swift succession.

They get over the line with a point to spare and in their pocket of Galway city, this hurling narrative rolls on to another chapter with tomorrow’s county final.

Louis Mulqueen reflects on their journey. In the off season of 2016 a delegation from the Renmore-based club landed down to him in Clare. Their argument was persuasive and he took the managerial reins.

On 12 November last year they pushed past Cappataggle in another semi-final that went to the wire, booking a first final spot since 1970. On 3 December they were crowned the kings of Galway hurling after 47 years in the wilderness.

February brought an All-Ireland date with a formidable Cuala side. If that proved a step too far, they rebounded in the manner of a team not satisfied with their lot.

Liam Mellows celebrate in the dressing room after the game Liam Mellows players celebrate in the dressing-room after their county final victory last year. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s a great place to be. If you said at the start of the year we’d be into a second county final, we’d have bitten your hand off,” says Mulqueen.

“We came badly unstuck against Cuala in February, we had to go away and look at that. We weren’t at the races.

“(Cappataggle) was a game I probably didn’t want to draw. They’re a very good team, I saw them two or three times this year and they have actually progressed this year, their stickwork was better, their work-rate was much higher.

“Into injury-time, they were a point up, the crowd got behind them, they were baying for the county champions. The composure they (Liam Mellows players) got from being champions last year, I was just happy that they dug deep. They didn’t panic.

“We took it from the jaws of defeat, we actually got a victory. That was really heartbreaking for Cappataggle but it was reassuring that weren’t going to give up that county title easily.”

That refusal to relinquish honours is rooted in the effect that 2017 had on them. Mulqueen has witnessed the transformative impact that a seismic hurling victory can have.

He worked with St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield when they were dominating county, provincial and national stages. He was on the sideline in tandem with Davy Fitzgerald when Clare triumphed under the Croke Park lights in 2013. Yet the images and memories of Pearse Stadium and the aftermath last December do not drift easily from his mind.

“I’m not from the city myself but the emotion in winning after 47 years was amazing. The green flares, the outpouring on the pitch, there was people that had come from all over the world to see Mellows.

Louis Mulqueen celebrates after the game with selector Paul Mitchell

“I’ve learned over the two years that they’re a very well-organised club. They’ve great passion and a club that are very hard working to look after young children in the city.

“I saw in Clare in ’13 what it did for the county, the resurgence, the energy, the positivity and the happiness it brought to people. There’s a buzz created on the back of the senior victory last year. I like that positivity in the club. It’s kind of revitalised their part of the city.

“Sometimes a city doesn’t have what a parish has. I think that’s what Mellows have evolved over the two years, they’ve brought it into the community, they’ve brought it into a family situation.”

Getting to the top is one thing, trying to stay there is a tough task. The Galway hurling scene is a bearpit. There’s been six different senior champions in the last eight seasons. Another two clubs have contested finals. Not since Portumna did three-in-a-row in 2009 has the title been retained.

Liam Mellows had to rouse themselves after that setback at the hands of Cuala in Thurles last February. They got the job done in their opening two group games in April, then downed tools for the summer as the championship was shut down. Picking it back up in September was not easy and a mixed bag of results ensued.

But they booked a spot in the knockout stages, got through those assignments and are now part of the final two. All that after a season where a core of their side are unavailable.

“A big loss to us was Ronan Elwood, our centre-forward last year, he went off to California. Mike Conneely went off to Groningen in the Netherlands with the Army. We flew him back for the last game but you’ve lost the continuity of that.

“John Lee has been an icon of Mellows, he did his cruciate twice. His brother Brian, his knee went during the year. Stephen Barrett had an operation on his knee a few years ago. But you’ve introduced a few other younger lads that were on the verge last year. You keep the revolving door open and keep building.”

They had no one on the Galway squad that finally made the Liam MacCarthy Cup breakthrough in 2017 and no representative when they returned to the showpiece against Limerick in August.

But in David Collins and Aonghus Callanan, they have a pair with years of service to the county cause behind them. Pillars that a club can lean on.

Conor Hynes and Aonghus Callanan celebrate winning the Tomas Callanan Cup David Collins and Aonghus Callanan hoist the trophy after last year's county final. INPHO INPHO

“I’ve been with players for 35 years, Seanie McMahon, Ollie Baker, Jamesie O’Connor, Brian Lohan, Davy Fitz, I trained all those lads during my career,” says Mulqueen.

“But I tell you, you’ll go far and hard to meet a better man than David Collins on and off the pitch. He’s a born leader. I remember being up in Galway with Loughnane, we actually picked him as the captain of Galway at that time, I think he was young hurler of Ireland.

“But since he stopped the inter-county, you cannot express what he’s done for Mellows. He’s a leader, he’s pulled the thing together with me for them. All his energy has gone into the club and that’s a major plus for us.

“Aonghus again similar, we would have had Aonghus back in 2007 with Galway, he gets big scores. They are the cornerstone of experience, you’re looking at Tadhg Haran as well and Adrian Morrissey is one of the highest scoring free-takers in the county. We’ve some good players. The big thing is about having leaders on the pitch when they cross the white line.”

Mulqueen stresses the need for that leadership tomorrow. St Thomas are chasing a third title in seven seasons. He scans their teamsheet and sees it littered with stars, noting in particular the capabilities of David Burke and Conor Cooney. The clubs met in the group stages in September, Liam Mellows retired to their dressing-room after falling nine points short. That’s the gap they will seek to overturn.

St. Thomas players celebrate winning the Galway Senior Club hurling final St Thomas players celebrating their 2016 county final victory. Mike Shaughnessy / INPHO Mike Shaughnessy / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s probably the biggest test I’ll have faced over the two years with Mellows. They have icons of Galway hurling.

“We were very adamant this year that we would come back in the second year and prove to people basically that Mellows are able to sit at the top table of Galway hurling or able to be this competitive. A few years ago they were facing relegation.

“We’re trying to make a statement that we’re a club that needs to be reckoned with in Galway. It’s a massive challenge but just thrilled we got this far to be able to attempt to make a statement.”

Mid November in Galway and they move on to the next challenge, that next chance to succeed.

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