Ger Crow e and Edwin Finnerty
HURLING forms an integral, cherished and romantic part of the Tullamore GAA story. They have a great tradition of hurling and lie fifth in the Offaly Senior Hurling Championship roll of honour with ten titles – they won a famous four in a row from 1934 to 1937 but embarked on a long famine after winning the 1964 championship.
Tullamore stunned the Offaly hurling world when they came from nowhere to claim their tenth success in 2009, were beaten in the 2010 final and have slipped back into the pack since those halycon days.
Relegated out of senior hurling five years ago, they have been striving hard to return since then. Beaten by a point by Clodiagh Gaels in the Senior “B” Hurling Championship final last year, they have returned to the decider this year – where they will face off against Clara in an absolutely tantalising final.
Hurling is very important to Tullamore GAA Club. They have a small but significant and very passionate group of people whose first love is hurling. They are always capable of producing good hurlers – their greatest was Kevin Martin whose was outstanding on the Offaly team that won the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship in 1994 and 1998, winning All-Stars in both years. They have had Shane Dooley, one of Offaly's top hurlers in the modern era and a phenomenal scoring machine. Now in the Winter of his career, Dooley's display will have a big bearing on Sunday's final.
Back in the past, they had many stalwart performers for Offaly teams, in the days before the big 1980 breakthrough and Tullamore is important for Offaly hurling. The game is also very much second on the list of priorities for the greater club. Football is their abiding passion, the main driving force and this has been reflected in recent years as Tullamore have enjoyed great success at underage an senior level.
They have a great tradition of dual players but in recent times as the demands have become greater, this is dwindling – there aren't that many senior dual players on both teams. The veteran Ger Treacy is still playing senior football with Cappincur, Ciaran Egan, Dan Fox and Mike Fox have played senior football with Tullamore this year. Shane Dooley is still a sub on the senior football team but is down the pecking order there. Shane Kelly also played senior football for years but has drifted away from that in recent years.
Others have played intermediate and junior football but even at club senior level, the dual player seems to be an endangered species, and perhaps in Tullamore more so than in other dual clubs – Ferbane-Belmont and Durrow-Ballinamere still have several playing both.
There is real evidence of the challenges hurling faces in Tullamore. Diarmuid Egan, a key player last year for them, opted to concentrate on football this year and others have followed a similar route. The footballers will more or less get everyone they want in Tullamore, the same is not true for hurling. They also had a managerial change on the eve of championship with Pe Kelly, Sean Ahern and Stephen Egan Snr and Jnr stepping away in the weeks leading up to it.
Commitment was an issue for them and it saw a long time former player, Edwin Finnerty step into the breach.
As Finnerty said last week, Tullamore GAA may be a huge club but they are a small hurling one. Yet they have a hardcore of people whose first love and passion is hurling. Finnerty and team captain Ger Crowe are perfect examples of this. Finnerty was a good, skilful forward in football during his playing career but hurling was his game of choice. At football, he played mainly at intermediate or junior level but was a senior hurling stalwart for years and won a Senior Hurling Championship medal in 2009 – he played senior hurling from 1997 to 2015.
Crowe played underage and a bit of adult football but injuries ensured that he had to make an early choice and it was an easy one for him: Hurling. His path is an interesting one – his father Ger Crowe is a Clare native and played senior football for them in the 1970s – a very good corner back, Ger Crowe senior also played club football in Dublin as well as in New York when he emigrated in the 1980s, before returning home. His mother Dolores is a Kelly from Kilcavan but was a passionate camogie player, playing for St Sinchill's for years, as she lived in Killeigh – she also played for Offaly. Ger was born in New York and has US citzenship. This has given him the option of moving to the USA any time he wanted to and he did in 2017 for a year – however, a mixture of work pressure there and long hours coupled with a love for the GAA and hurling were among the factors that pulled him home and he is now leading Tullamore into Sunday's final.
While things were not good in Tullamore when the previous management went, Finnerty deliberated for quite a bit when asked to take over. Stating that the others left for “personal reasons”, he praised them for doing great work all year. Edwin, his brother Davin, Adrian Mordon (a native of Limerick) and Cillian Bane were with the juniors at the time and approaching them was an obvious move for the club. John Rouse came in on the back room team among others.
It was hard to take over in those circumstances but he was keen to put the narrative about dual players quickly to bed. “Our lads are plenty good enough to be challenging in senior B. We had enough lads there and all we needed really was to get a bit of positivity back in to their heads. That is where we started from.”
They then embarked on a helter-skelter, roller-coaster of a championship ride. Now Finnerty smiles as he reflects on it all – a good win in a “high pressure game for us” against Lusmagh. A poor start and 17 minutes without scoring against Drumcullen before they “scraped a draw” with a last gasp Shane Dooley free. They then “didn't show up” and were ambushed by an “excellent” Birr side. That was followed by defeat to Clara in a game where they lost Shane Dooley to a first half red card - “You could say it was a dubious decision but referee's have to make a call and he did,” said Finnerty, who said they showed great heart, “dug deep” and almost won it before losing.
He sang Clara's praises. “A very good team, very fit. That day they brought on Josh Fleming who is a super hurler. I can't understand why he hasn't been in with the county. Cathal O'Meara is very very good, Cormac Delaney is excellent at centre back and we couldn't beat Marius (Stones) in the goal. They won it by a point and will be favourites going into this match.”
In their last group game against Kilcormac-Killoughey, it was “do or die”. Tullamore had to win and then rely on other results. They survived in extraordinary circumstances by the skin of their teeth. Clinging to a point lead in injury time, K-K were awarded a penalty and went for goal but Adam Cleary made a “great save” with Kevin Waters clearing it. Tullamore weren't fully aware of the ramifications at the time but had K-K tapped it over the bar, they were gone. Finnerty was relieved that they had done their job and 90 seconds later got the result from Drumcullen and Lusmagh where Drumcullen won by four points but a five point win would also have put them out.
“We got away with it,” he reflected. “We came into what was a difficult situation. A lot of people inside and externally had us written off. My job was to keep them up, that was the number one aim. Our second aim was to get to the knock out and we got that. Our third was the final and we did that.” They achieved their third aim when Tullamore beat Kilcormac-Killoughey in extra time in the semi-final. “We don't do things normally,” he said as he recalled that K-K were seven points up at one stage before Dan Fox gave them extra time with a super point. “I can't praise them enough for the heart and unity they have shown over the last thirteen weeks since I took over. They just dug in.”
This will be Tullamore's fourth meeting with Clara in two years. Tullamore have won twice, both last year – group and semi-final – and Clara took this year's clash. “They have all been very tight games. It is going to be nip and tuck,” he said, repeating that Clara are favourites and could have beaten them by 7-8 points. He did add: “But we are not going to make up the numbers either. Like any game in senior B this year, it is going to be one or two points either way.”
Finnerty talked about the benefits of returning to senior hurling, the encouragement this will give to their emerging minors – Cillian Martin and Niall Furlong were outstanding on the Offaly minor team that almost won the All-Ireland this year. Jack Daly is another exciting prospect and Finnerty wants them to have the opportunity to play at the higher level as well as giving established players such as Ger Crowe, Niall Houlihan, Adam Cleary etc the opportunity to “test themselves at the higher grade”.
Naturally, there are other players in Tullamore who Finnerty would have liked to have but he did the only thing he could: accept people's decisions and move on with what he had. “You have to respect their decisions. I get on very well with Niall Stack (senior football manager). I grew up with Niall and he has been a great help to me settling into the job, helping me out with different things in terms or preparation and all that. I can't fault him.”
With the couple of dual senior players and intermediates, the focus has been on minding their bodies and not overloading them. “We have week on, week off. We just do skills with them the week we are playing football and vice versa. It has worked well. Of course we would love to have the full complement of lads but we have more than enough who are capable of competing in senior B, and senior A for that matter.”
He didn't blame Diarmuid Egan for opting for football, saying: “You can't blame the lad. A lot goes into winning a senior A championship and there is a lot of hardship on your body when you are playing inter county football as well. A lad has to work and football is his first love. When I chatted him, I wished him all the best on it. The same with any of the lads that made themselves available for football and made a decision not to play hurling this year. That is not to say they won't be back.”
He has no qualms about admitting that hurling is well behind football in Tullamore's list of priorities. “It is. While it is a big club, it is a small hurling club and you have to accept that at times. And you have to re-enforce the lads who are there and are hurling only and keep their confidence and heart up. Playing both codes at club level can be done. Plenty of lads have done it and are still playing. The Shane Dooley's, Shane Kelly's, Ger Treacy's of the world. It can be done and it can be disappointing when lads mightn't show up for the hurling but we have to accept it and work with what we have. I still have confidence in them. “
Finnerty spoke about the work going on at underage level: The U-13s are “flying it”, the U-15s beat St Rynagh's, the minors are going well. “The work is being done at underage. We just have to move it from minor to U-20s, get them into senior and keep them interested. It takes a while, six or seven years to get it there, maybe there.”
He feels Tullamore let that side slip after their success in 2009-2010. “We probably should have put a lot more work into developing hurling there. There is a huge amount of hurling in the club and it is just about getting them into the adult teams.”
Tullamore were excited about the form of Cillian Martin and Niall Furlong on the Offaly minor hurling team. As a son of Kevin Martin, Cillian is also a good footballer but he is likely to pursue hurling as his game of choice. The future of Niall Furlong is less certain – he is a member of one of Offaly football's great football dynasties, he has played minor football for Offaly, will almost certainly play U-20 football county and has the scope to develop more.
Family tradition suggests that football may be his choice if he moves to the highest level but Finnerty is not worried that he will be lost to hurling. “I think Niall enjoys his hurling. He played in an All-Ireland final, he was dominant for our U-20s. Again, he doesn't have to make a choice. I think he is equally good in both codes. I would be hopeful he will continue with hurling. The same with Jack Daly. He is a very good footballer, an exceptional hurler. There is four or five of that minor team coming through. Dan Fox is playing senior in both codes. Mike Fox came on in the last senior game. It can be done. You have Ciaran Egan there as well.”
The future of young players is out of their control to some extent and now the focus is on Clara on Sunday. Challenged by his claim that Clara are favourites, Finnerty said: “Traditions are gone out the window in a county final. We have proven that a few times, whether it is football or hurling finals. Clara have been coming for the last four or five years and they are going to get their day. We need to be up for it as much as they are. We don't fear any club in the county, whether it be a senior B or senior A team. You can't play with fear. You have to play with enjoyment or confidence that you are going to win it. Hopefully it will be a right good game and we will see who comes out on top. “
Ger Crowe has been playing senior hurling with Tullamore since 2013. Now 28 years of age, he went for a year with Niall Houlihan in 2017 to New York – his mother, father and sister are now living in New York. He had enough after a year, stating that he was in a “high pressure” job and didn't have much time off. “After the year, I was glad to get home,” he said, adding that hurling had a role in his decision.
They were relegated that year in 2017 and Crowe spoke about the importance of getting back up. “We have a lot of young talent in the club. Not all are playing at the minute but they are producing some serious lads. Getting up to senior for the lads on the Offaly minor hurling team would be great for their first year.”
He loved hurling from his earliest age. “I grew up beating the ball off a wall from the time I was young. My parents were big into the GAA. I always had a hurl in my hand from day one nearly.”
He was asked about Tullamore's managerial change before the start of the championship. “It was just for different reasons. Coming up to train the following week, lads were feeling sorry for themselves and Edwin came in with a great passion and spirit. He got the heads right for the first round. He gave a big speech before that game and let us know that he had the belief in us that we could go on and do anything. That if we got a run on this championship, you wouldn't know what would happen. After we got the first win, confidence was up. We were up and down in the middle of the championship but we ground out a few results to get there.”
Crowe did not feel that commitment was an issue this year. “No but just playing dual at the moment, there is crazy standards on both sides. There is huge commitment. Lads have girlfriends, college, jobs and coming out of Covid, giving up four or five nights a week is tough. Especially trying to manage injuries as well. Committing to two and training nearly every night of the week is tough. The lads we have now have given unbelievable effort. A lot of lads are still playing football on this team as well and they are all going well.”
After losing to Clodiagh Gaels by a point in the final last year, he knows how hard it is to win one. “They are very hard won. We just fell short last year and there was a lot to think about over the Winter. We wanted the chance to try and rectify that. They are a very good team and we always have a very good battle with them. Two town teams and they play a really good style of hurling. A strong running game. Same as ourselves, they have a lot of footballers so they have that pace and strength and conditioning done. Playing week on, week off with games, they are a very good team. They have good scoring forwards and it will be a very good test again.”
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