30 Sept 2022

The Cork man trying to lead Shamrocks back up the hurling ladder

The Cork man trying to lead Shamrocks back up the hurling ladder

The Shamrocks management: Barry Kelly, Cal Aherne, Paddy Guinan and Micheal Buckley.

WHEN Cal Aherne moved into Mucklagh three years ago, he did what a lot of newcomers to an area do – he joined the local GAA Club as he tried to get to know more people and become a part of his new community.

A former club senior hurler in his native Cork, Aherne's initial ambitions were all centred on playing with Shamrocks. He was on the Shamrocks team that lost to Birr in the Intermediate Hurling Championship final last year and hoped to play with them this year but an injury scuppered those plans.

It looked like his role would be a peripheral one but circumstances have led him into the manager's hot seat and he has now led Shamrocks back to the Intermediate Hurling Championship final where they play Seir Kieran in O'Connor Park next Sunday.

Daithi Regan, an Offaly senior hurling star in the 1990s and a great servant of Birr, was the manager at the start of the year. Regan, however, resigned before the championship started, complaining that his dual players were coming back to his sessions tired from football training. Managing the load for any dual club is one of their main challenges and Shamrocks turned to Aherne after Regan went.

Christened Callaghan but known as Cal, he had moved to Offaly in 2015, living in Tullamore initially before going out to Mucklagh in 2019. In Tullamore, he had initially stayed hurling with his home club in Cork, done nothing for a couple of years and then went back hurling with Shamrocks in 2021 “to get to know people”.

His home club is St Catherine's in east Cork. It is the club of former Cork hero, Denis Walsh – about 12 miles from Middleton, it is a rural parish club with three villages in its catchment area and is close to the Waterford border.

They were senior for his first three years playing with them before being relegated to intermediate. Work brought him to Dublin and he played with Faughs here. He then swtiched back to St Catherine's and “thought he had retired” before transferring to Shamrocks – an engineering manager with ESB, he is based out of Portlaoise.

He choose Offaly as his home as his wife Caroline Fleury is from Rath – her famous uncle Pat captained Offaly to the All-Ireland senior hurling title in 1985 and was a hero during the great years in the 1980s.

35 years of age, he was the oldest person on the Shamrocks starting team last year but had been told to retire after tearing cartilage on his hip – he still hopes to be able to play but hasn't been able to as he continues to pick up strains. “It is a young man's game,” he smiled.

This is his first time to manage at adult level. He was with Shamrocks minors last year as a selector and had coached in Cork but was never in a management role – Paddy Guinan, Barry Kelly and Micheal Buckley are his co-selectors with Shamrocks.

“Between the jigs and the reels, it happened. I was injured and an opportunity came up to get involved. I wanted to be involved in whatever way. Losing any management team is tough and to find another management team is hard. I stepped in and got great guys with me.”

Aherne ackowledged the great work that Daithi and his selectors, Martin Darcy, Benny Molloy and Dermot Buckley had been doing. “I think what led to that (Their resignation) was player welfare. I was far luckier, when I came in, we were coming into championship where as the lads had been involved with pre-season and league where it is quite congested. You are doing a lot of tick tacking with football. Everyone wants their players and you are also trying to make sure people are not being over trained.

“When it came to me, I was into the stage where we had a league final and then it was every second week with championship. It works far easier and it naturally worked out for me.”

Aherne is next door neighbours with Regan in Tegan Court and he chatted his neighbour regularly during the season. He didn't want him going but spoke to him about the possibility of getting involved once he did. “It is unfortunate because the guys had done a lot of work and gave up a lot of time. I have been involved in three clubs and it happens a bit.”

St Catherine's were a dual club where hurling was the main sport while they had a strong junior football team – he played football. In Shamrocks, hurling is important but football is the priority for the majority of members and supporters. He knew this dynamic when he took on the job.

He is happy that Shamrocks can compete at a high level in football and hurling, stating that they have the volume of players. They have six senior footballers on their hurling team along with another half dozen playing junior – they have the guts of twenty players playing hurling mainly. Both teams train every week but the emphasis is on football on the football week and vice versa with hurling – last week Shamrocks were preparing for the senior football quarter-final against Edenderry and their dual players came in for the hurling sessions but didn't do any of the hard running.

“They have had a hard run. They could be going for twelve weeks on the trot so it is about managing that. It is a lot of mileage for lads playing both,” he said, revealing that both teams train twice a week.

It has been a topsy turvy season for Shamrocks, losing to Carrig-Riverstown, beating Seir Kieran and then losing to Brosna Gaels, who ended up being relegated. The Brosna Gaels' defeat was a particular shock to the system and Aherne admits that they didn't bring enough intensity to the game. It did serve them well as they got an extra game via the quarter-finals and he was very happy with their display against Coolderry while beating Carrig-Riverstown in the semi-final was a huge result – the border club had beaten Shamrocks three times earlier in the year, the league, league final and championship.

“I thought the level of hurling was very high. I know it was low scoring but the quality was far higher than that. The extra game was good for us. Knockout hurling is very different. It was very hard to go into the Carrig-Riverstown dressing room after the game because I have a lot of respect for their team. They are extremely hard working and honest hurlers. They were the best team in the championship to date so we are happy to have got through us but that was not our final.”

Seir Kieran had a great win over St Rynagh's in the semi-final and this has changed the goalposts for Shamrocks a bit – they would have been underdogs against St Rynagh's but are now favourites.

“Looking at it from the outside in, that would be the expectation but we had a very similar expectation last year and that is in our minds. Seir Kieran are a very good team. We got a couple of goals against the run of play against them and the score flattered us. We may be made favourites over that win but I really think it is a 50-50 game. We are out to win this game but we have the utmost respect for them. There is no easy game.”

He knows that there is pressure on Shamrocks to get back up – they had been relegated four years ago, the year after losing to Ballinamere in the senior “B” final and were expected to quickly bounce back. It hasn't happened as they lost a semi-final and a final, to Birr, last year. “You can go with the form book but in championship hurling, it is who is the best team on the day. I found the standard really high here. There are no easy games. Take Brosna Gaels, We would have been warm favourites but if you are not tuned in on the day, any team can punish you.”

He is confident that Shamrocks have the ability to get up to senior “B” but they have to perform on the day to do so. He saw that at first hand in last year's final against Birr and he made the surprising confession: “I have been involved in a lot of management teams and Jimmy Conway and the boys last year was one of the best set ups I have been with. They had us primed really well and I don't think there was any complacency but I don't think we as a group of players attacked that game the way we should have.

“We had beaten Birr in the group stages and maybe expected to have a bit of an advantage. Birr brought a lot of intensity. I was playing centre half back and I should have been bringing a lot more experience and intensity to that game and I didn't. I have watched that game back a couple of times and it was nice hurling but there was no bite or attacking everything.

“I don't know what it was. I don't know if we tried to play it down too much. A final is a big deal. I was delighted to see that the final is in O'Connor Park. That will bring a bit of excitement to it. That game will annoy me for ever more. The guys left no stone unturned for us but then on the flip side, Birr are flying in senior “B” and have a very good team.

“Seir Kieran are very good. I was at their game against St Rynagh's and they hurled very well. There were times St Rynagh's could have got a run on them and they never panicked. They were very impressive.”

How do you stop this lack of intensity presenting itself again?

“I wouldn't be the break the hurley off the table type but I know from playing with the boys last year and managing them this year, I have a lot of faith in them. I have a great group of players who can win any game. I believe it and they believe it but it is just to get that out on the day. Sometimes against Birr last year, did we stick in it long enough, did we go to the fight? I come from a small club, they won an intermediate in 2004 to go back up senior after being down for one year. They won by 12 points to 11 and the rule was you win by whatever it takes.

“It is a very similar thing. They know what is expected of them. It is a final and Brosna Gaels is a good example. If you don't bring intensity and fight at this level, teams will punish you. Seir Kieran have a lot of guys who have played senior hurling and they have a lot of youth as well.”

He spoke about the importance of this game for Shamrocks. “It is massively important. This team needs to be up in senior B hurling. Not just for this group of players but hurling in the parish. You look at what Ballinamere and Durrow are doing. It is great to have both going well. I am a hurling man primarily and I see a lot of the great work being done at underage level in the parish, and with football. We have had the minors down doing drills with us. To see lads perform, to get up to the higher level would bring this club on massively.

“The aspiration would be to have both teams playing senior A. Is it feasible? I would say yes. This team are very young. Last year, I found maybe two lads over 30 that I could go over for a chat to at the start. There is a lot of hurling left in these guys and that sets a great foundation for the future but there is no point talking about it. We need to get up through those levels.”

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