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04 Dec 2021

Men with a mission hoping to guide Tullamore back to the promised land

Men with a mission hoping to guide Tullamore back to the promised land

Tullamore manager Kevin Martin with Sean Ahern to the left after Offaly defeated Dublin in the NHL in 2018.

LIFE is not always simple for the Tullamore hurler! They come from the one true dual club in Offaly, the only one with any real tradition of winning senior titles in both codes but it is not a true dual club in the sense that both are equal.

Offaly SHC "B" final preview

They aren't and hurling is nearly always trailing in the slipstream of football in Tullamore. Yet the small ball game is hugely important for them, a most cherished sport in the club and there is a burning desire to be senior in both games.

Tullamore have won the Senior Hurling Championship on ten occasions (it is 27 in football) and their last win in 2009 was one of the great Offaly hurling stories of that decade, as very few could have predicted it at the time. They showed, however, that it was no fluke by returning to the final in 2010, losing out to Coolderry and it was a great era for Tullamore hurling.

They have declined since then – firstly bowing out of the list of genuine contenders, then finding themselves in an annual relegation dogfight and finally bowing out when the championship was restructured to eight teams after 2017.

Since then Tullamore have found themselves in senior “B” hurling and they have turned the clock back in a bid to get out of it. Tullamore's greatest ever hurler is Kevin Martin. A heroic wing back and All-Star as Offaly won the All-Ireland senior hurling title in 1994 and 1998, Martin was the manager in 2009, as well as a hugely effective player, even if his best days were well past him.

Since then, Martin has been around the block. He has managed a few club teams and taken charge of Westmeath and Offaly at county level.

He led Clough-Ballacolla to a Laois senior hurling title in 2015 while his Offaly experience left a very sour taste in his mouth. His tenure was never fully plain sailing but it ended very unseemingly during 2019 when he was jettisoned in mid-season as Offaly headed for relegation from the Joe McDonagh Cup. Then County Board chairman Tommy Byrne made the call to Martin, arguing subsequently that he felt a change was necessary as relegation could be prevented.

As it was Offaly still went down and it took two attempts before they got back out of the Christy Ring Cup. It was a very messy period for Offaly hurling and Martin must have felt he was hung out to dry as relegation loomed.

One of his sidekicks during the past few years has been a proud Laois man, who has been a long time resident in Tullamore and has very much adopted the local GAA Club as his own. From the Clough-Ballacolla club in Laois, Sean Ahern went in as a selector under Martin when they won the championship in 2015. He plays down his own role in recruiting the manager, other than stating that Martin did speak to him about the players and set up there.

Work brought Ahern to Tullamore and like a lot of “exiles” he was delighted to avail of the local GAA Club to fully integrate himself into the local community. However, love of his own area and home club has never left him and is unlikely to do so. This year, he was thrilled to see Clough-Ballacolla retain their Laois senior hurling title but a Tullamore win over Clodiagh Gaels in Saturday's Senior “B” Hurling final is his real driving force for this year.

Sean Ahern came to Tullamore to work in 1982, having been in college in Carlow. He eventually transferred from Clough-Ballacolla around 1988 and was a key part in a bountiful era for Tullamore hurling as they won the Intermediate and Senior “B” Hurling Championship in 1989 and 1990 – he was the senior “B” captain in '90 and he said:

“I got to know more people through that, a lot of our games would have been down south and then we’d go back to the Blueball. When you come from a country place, and you have played senior hurling it is in your blood and I just fell in here and enjoyed it immensely.”

Prior to that, he had won an Intermediate hurling medal with Clough-Ballacolla back in 1972 and he has greatly enjoyed working alongside Kevin Martin in recent years.

When Kevin Martin got the Offaly manager's job in 2017, he brought Sean Ahern with him – firstly as a member of the backroom staff and then as a selector in 2019. Ahern spoke last week about their experiences there and hurt at the way it all ended.

“I would have been disappointed, and I think Kevin would have been very disappointed as well. We felt we had enough to stay up. We were a bit flat in some of the games, but we still had Kerry and Antrim to come, we felt the lads would have responded.”

Hurling life in Tullamore

While football may always be in the ascendancy in Tullamore and they won another senior football title last Sunday, the town has a very passionate hurling backing, people whose priority and first love is the ancient game. Kevin Martin may have won senior football medals with Tullamore in 2000 and 2002 – he scored the all important goal as Tullamore bridged a 23 year gap when winning the Dowling Cup in 2000 – but hurling has been his game of choice almost all his life.

The remainder of their hurling management is the same. A teacher in Tullamore, John O'Sullivan is a former Laois hurler and has done trojan work with underage hurling in the club and down. Peter Kelly may also have senior football medals in his possession but hurling was the game that he was best at and it is big passion. And Sean Ahern comes from hurling country in Laois and has brought this interest to Tullamore.

After transferring in 1988, he was a key member of the Tullamore side that won the Senior “B” Hurling Championship in 1990, having taken an intermediate hurling medal the previous year. He spoke with great honesty about the challenges with promoting hurling in a town where the big ball game occupies such an elevated spot.

“It is tough, unless the lads want to play it’s very difficult to demand they play. Tullamore realistically have had good success in football more often than in the hurling although the lads had a great win in 2009.”

Up to recent years, Tullamore have often been the architects of their own struggles in hurling as they haven't always been competitive in underage ranks and have failed to field teams on occasions.

Ahern agreed: “I think there is no doubt that if you look maybe 7 or 8 years ago, we probably wouldn’t have fulfilled minor or u20 but in fairness if you look at the u20 team this year they are fantastic hurlers. You would like to think that (Michael) Fennelly will have a look at some of the lads like Cormac Egan who I think is a better hurler than a footballer but maybe that’s just me being biased. There is the makings of a few to get in at county level and Clodiagh already has a few.”

It was suggested that a big town like Tullamore should be capable of being a dual senior club.

“It should but the reality is a town is different to the country, going south you have hurling and going north you have football and you don’t have much carryover but in a town, even as young lads you will have the same 28 or 30 playing soccer, hurling, football and rugby. Really at that level that’s where you lose, the system must be that you have 80 or 90 young lads and there are games for them all and I know the lads here have had B teams in football and it pays off because people develop at different rates. You could have a young lad at 8 or 9 and all of a sudden by the time he’s 16 or 17 he is a different player. So rather than staying with your nucleus of 25 lads doing all the sports, get plenty of them playing and now you will have the chance of having separate hurling and football.”

Across the country, it seems to have become fashionable for young people to play GAA games now.

“I probably wouldn’t be involved enough in the club aside from the senior here now to see that but all you need to do is pass by here on a Saturday, it’s just blue with young lads. Theres no doubt in a town this size that football, hurling, ladies' football and camogie are going to be popular.”

Hungry to get back up to senior

There is a great hunger in Tullamore to get back up to senior and this has been the target since the start of the year.

“Yeah, we would have envisaged that we would have made it to the semi-finals anyway. There were four strong teams as it turned out, like Lusmagh was always going to be an option and wanting to go back up, they had been senior. Clodiagh Gaels had been the favourites from the start and I suppose ourselves then. We didn’t know who after that but definitely, our objective was the final. How we got there and who we had to beat was the big challenge and how we would get it going. I suppose a little bit of a challenge with the football and hurling and u20 hurling and u20 football and that like it was difficult to get it going, but our objective was to get to a final and a final is a two-horse race. It's whoever plays on the day, and we are trying to get our lads tweaked for that. Clodiagh Gaels will be in the same boat trying to do what they can do to win it and they have good old form behind them. They had a bit of a blip and all of a sudden they are coming good.”

Clodiagh Gaels have been talking about a potential rematch with Tullamore since their first round defeat and he is under no illusions about what they will bring to the table.

“There is no doubt they will want a run at us, they’ll feel that they should have performed better against us in that round robin game. Now the other side of the coin is we played them in the league final, and they hammered us, and they were well worth that win. They’re a good team. They're a more experienced team than our lads. We have a good few u20s and a few just gone 20 but as well as that they’ve beaten our lads the last four or five years and we had no answer to them, so they probably still have the upper hand going into the final the way I'd look at it.

How big of a game was it for you to beat them in the first round considering that?

“Well, it was an important one for us because they had beaten us in the league, and we had to set a marker. That’s behind us now, it’s a new game. It's down to what we do and what the lads do. We need everyone firing on all cylinders. We haven't had that. Whereas if you look at Clodiagh Gaels you had three lads in with the county, Liam and Conor Langton. You have Dwayne Dunne and a big spread of players. If you look at their scores in the different games, they were well spread around. They’re mobile. Our biggest challenge is to match them in every aspect of the field whether it's in the backs or the forwards.”

While not involved last year, Ahern was very conscious of how big a blow last year's semi-final defeat to Drumcullen was, with promotion on the line.

“I was down at it and there was no doubt, Drumcullen were just the better team on the day and maybe our lads, I dunno whether it was the occasion and there's something we need to watch because its grand to win your round robin games but they had a final at stake and lads can be nervous. Now I don’t know whether that was the case against Drumcullen but Drumcullen were the better team than us on the day and they deserved to win and we were well off the mark. We’ve been off the mark against Clodiagh Gaels the last few years as well. We just have to match up and step up.

“It would be nice to go back up. The thing about going up senior, when you go up you have to stay up for a while becasue you get used to a slower level of hurling when your down below senior whether its intermediate or senior B and unless you compete at the top level you won't be able to stay there and if you could get up for more than a year you have a chance of getting up to the speed of it.”

He has noted that Drumcullen went straight back down this year and stressed the importance of a team staying up if promoted.

“If they could have hung in there for another year now all of a sudden, the pace of their game is getting better and even the whole fitness and tactics and all that kind of stuff. You don’t get as much time on the ball at senior. No more than against Clodiagh Gaels you won't and in a final it will seem like even less time because you have a bit of nerves setting in. If we can get all the lads through next Sunday in the football without injury that’s key for us. The drawn game in the football meant that we have been sharing the footballers between u20 and senior. It's difficult, we will have four starters next Sunday off this team and probably 8 or 9 on the panel and any 2 or 3 of them will come in. It's hard to do the sessions, I was down with Kevin in Ballacolla in 2015 when we won it and it was hurling, hurling, hurling and you can have practice matches and intense games so that’s probably the biggest challenge we’ve had not having only hurling.”

The Senior Football Championship final going to a replay did not help, even if there could be a positive spin off from Tullamore's win.

“You have to give the players a little leeway as well but they are good lads, you know they know they’ll have a final the following week, but it is a challenge you have and realistically the week into the final you won't be doing much on the Thursday or Friday a few pucks, a few shots on goal and that kind of stuff so you are really only have one-night next week.”

The game load on some of the players probably cost you Cormac Egan, it’s been very hard on Tullamore?

“It's very hard, if you look at it since the All Ireland, both John Furlong and Cormac Egan, they’ve had senior football or hurling one weekend, Tuesday U20 hurling or football. I just think it’s unfair on the players and player welfare and I would probably say and you know it’s up to clubs and county board but maybe the U20 might have been played at the end of everything or next year and give the lads a chance. You have Cormac Egan, he’s a huge loss to us. His pace, his reading of the game, his ability to drive at backs and break it down and make space for others,he’s a big loss to us, so the load is a big deal.”

Tullamore didn't start one of their dual players, Luke Egan in the semi-final win over Clara. Ahern explained:

“It was very much a load issue and because the fact that between football and college and work, he just wasn’t able to get here and we felt that bringing him in as sub he’d have an impact and get the chance to recover a little bit from all the workload as well. In fairness to him he played with all of our U20s there some of the time when some of the other lads weren’t playing, from the football side of it and Luke turned up and put it in and you’d feel sorry for him with the amount of work he’s doing. It’ll give us an option, a difficult choice what we’ll do in the final, if we have him back assuming this weekend, you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

With six wins under their belt, Tullamore's confidence is high for the final.

“That’s a fair comment and we have a young team. If you look at it we have experience built in with youth and we have played our bench fairly well. We have four or five subs that we brought in every day and we needed them. We were nip and tuck with Clara, it was anyone's game and we brought in the few lads and they made the difference. We said it from the beginning of the year that it was a 21- or 22-man panel and there is no point in us getting lads in on the day of the final and they haven’t played all year. We have rotated very well. Lads can be disappointed being brought off but its for the good of the team and they know that.”

A lot of the Tullamore and Clodiagh Gaels players went to school together, winning an All-Ireland “B” colleges title with Colaiste Choilm and this final is very much a local derby.

“Kevin (Martin) would be living out in that area as well. There is local rivalry and good spirit in the clubs and they are waiting in the grass there’s no doubt. They were favorites at the beginning of the year and they had a little bit of a blip along the way. They are back into gear again, they had a good win against Lusmagh I was down at that and they played very well. I was talking to somebody from Clodiagh Gaels that day and they said “we’re going to get beaten here because Lusmagh had come back well but I said no you have ability on the field to win it and they did.”

He was asked about the desire to get back to senior hurling in Tullamore and if it hurts that Ballinamere is now the senior team in the parish.

“I don’t think it does, when they went up senior the lads here thought we are good enough as well, but we have a big challenge Sunday, and we have a lot of dual players, but Loughmore-

Castleiney are able to do it in Tipperary. They are in a football and a hurling final so we should be able to do it a little better but its going to be a tough one because the more successful the lads are at football the more likely they are to pick football and we will be left with a nucleus of hurlers that we will have to build around. But now having said that John O’Sullivan, Sean McCann and Phily have done great work underage, there is a good filter of young lads coming along like Mike Feely, Jay Sheeran, Luke Egan, Ciaran Egan, there is a lot of them. Injury free there is a good few.”

He agreed that the final is a 50/50 one.

“There's no doubt about it. Lads will tell us that we are the favorites, but I would genuinely say that Clodiagh Gaels have every right to be favorites as we have. We’ve won all our games but none of them convincingly. We have plenty to brush up on.”

He concluded by speaking about the importance of Shane Dooley to Tullamore.

“Shane has a lot of experience and the important thing for us is that we aren't dependent on Shane for everything because that’s too easy for the other team. That’s a view we took at the beginning of the year, he has an awful lot to offer but at the end of the day there’s no one person who is going to win a game.”

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