Sixmilebridge have been the underage kingpins over the past two decades but it was the historic five-in-a-row of Under 16A titles that has become most influential in their current senior resurgence, writes Eoin Brennan.
The countdown to the county decider is now down to mere days and that final fever is very prevalent around O’Garney Park. With more Under 9’s and 10’s than it’s possible to count buzzing around the field, their thriving Minor Club has never been as healthy which is testament to not only the hard work of the existing coaches and mentors but also to previous holders of the crown that have laid the groundwork for the club’s current bloom.
Men like PJ Fitzpatrick, Pat Chaplin and Pat Morey are regularly attributed to have done trojan work in the underage ranks while former county seniors Michael O’Halloran and John O’Connell are the latest to have taken up the mantle in the engine room of the minor club.
And while it’s hard to pick out one specific juncture where Sixmilebridge’s 11 year senior drought between the 2002 and 2013 senior wins were bridged, the simple fact that on Sunday, 20 of the 31 players named in Sixmilebridge’s County Final squad are graduates of the unprecedented five-in-a-row of Under 16A titles from 2007-11, makes it perhaps the most obvious place to start.
Three men best to reflect on that era are Tom Sheehan, who was the Minor Club chairman for their first Under 16A success in eight years in 2007 after a replay, a selector the following year when they repeated the dose against Inagh-Kilnamona and manager of the 2009 squad while John Lynch (manager) and Tommy Liddy (coach) were part of the management teams that completed the final two legs of that historic journey.
With no clear continuous winning pattern for all five sides previously, there are two crucial ingredients that all three point to for the Under 16 successes that would subsequently follow.
Coincidentally, considering Sixmilebridge’s senior final opponents this weekend, the first turning point stemmed from final defeats to Clonlara along with Ballyea that played a major part in altering the ‘Bridge’s focus according to current Bord na nÓg PRO Tom Sheehan.
“I thought there were a few defeats that reminded us that we needed to step up a small bit. We have always been fiercely competitive at underage but I think Ballyea woke us up a bit when they hammered us as few times in Under 14 and earlier Clonlara at Under 16 made us focus the minds that number one, we needed to develop a few forwards.
“We weren’t scoring enough and we needed to improve our game overall as we had been dominant for a few years and then it was put up to us so that spurred us on greater achievement in later years.
“Ballyea had the likes of Tony Kelly and earlier Clonlara had [John] Conlon, [Darach] Honan, the O’Donovan’s [Domhnall and Cormac] and Nicky O’Connell. We drew with them in the 2005 Under 16A final but they beat us well in the replay. But still, we always knew that we had a fierce amount of players coming.”
Also central to Sixmilebridge’s rude health this year that saw all four adult teams reach the knock-out stages of their respective championships and three progressing to finals in senior, junior A and C was their concentration on the long game according to John Lynch, a theory that developing senior players from a young age was infinitely more important than short term gains at underage.
“I think at that time, the decision was made in the club to be producing senior players. More an emphasis on development rather than winning titles, that if we were hitting the crossbar, we were fine and that if we weren’t winning, we didn’t mind as much.
“My remit as far as I can remember and this was part of a club ethos under chairman PJ Fitzpatrick was to improve the standard rather than have the victories.”
And it was that foresight at Under 16 that Tommy Liddy feels has reaped the rewards of later successes at Under 21 and senior.
There’s a savage bond between the adult players. Before, some lads gave up hurling who had never lost an underage match. But now there is such a bond that the majority of those players are still playing at some level and each group supports the other.
“If you look at it from an overall perspective, before the Under 16’s starting the five-in-a-row, the seniors had gone downhill as we were been beaten by teams that we would have beaten convincingly every year. It was right in the middle of that 11 year drought but those Under 16 victories actually went on to spur on a couple of Under 21 victories and then as a result the senior victory two years ago as well.
“This year, we’re lucky that the senior team in their run to the county final have been backboned by a good number the players who won those Under 16’s.”
John Lynch takes up that point. “From our point of view, a lot of those players are also playing intermediate and junior, that they are still playing at some level of adult hurling and to me, that’s as pleasurable as the seniors.”
In addition, the Under 16’s teams of the 2007-11 era had not only committed management teams but superb character in their teams.
“It started with Cyril Crowe managing the first while John O’Meara [current senior manager] did a lot of work with that first Under 16 team.” offered Tom Sheehan. “We drew with Inagh-Kilnamona the first day and were lucky enough to draw with them but it was our international athlete Timmy Crowe that scored four goals in the replay to win it the second day.”
“The younger fellas were gaining experience and then they would be the leaders in future teams.” adds Liddy. “I mean the likes of Jamie [Shanahan] had already won two championships by the time we came in so his influence and leadership was crucial.”
“That’s right” interjected Lynch. “We had leaders, those that had seen the previous leaders and then stepped up themselves when needed and that’s the key ingredient that formed those teams. All those players were fiercely competitive.”
“For me, the most important part of those teams was the flexibility of the players.” outlined Liddy. “Like, if you just look at the players in the two teams we were involved with in 2010 and ’11, Brian Carey could play from 2 to 11, Brian Corry could play from 8 to 15, Jamie [Shanahan] could play from 5 to 15 while Alex Morey was the same, you could play him in the backs or in the forwards. And that was after Seadna Morey, Shane Golden and others had done the same previously.”
“Whatever it was about those players, it didn’t matter where you’d play them, they’d give it everything and had the natural ability to play in a range of different positions.”
Following a completion of a three-in-a-row in 2009 with a memorable victory over that team’s biggest rivals Ballyea, it was Clarecastle who posed the biggest threat over the final two years recalls Liddy.
“There was a strong but a very healthy rivalry between Clarecastle and the ‘Bridge the two years that we were involved. They were just two fantastic evenly matched underage teams, the best two in the division. So after eventually getting over them after a replay in the 2010 final, the semi-final in 2011 between us in Newmarket was easily the game of the championship. Brian Corry got four goals the same day and the confidence that the players got from beating Clarecastle drove them on to beat Éire Óg in that final.”
It would be the confidence surge needed to take the ‘Bridge to new heights at underage. And while it didn’t automatically transfer onto minor in the preceding years as they would suffer three successive final defeats before finally garnering one in 2011, Under 21 level would see three more A titles come back to O’Garney Park in 2011, ’13 and ’14.
Having battled together for such a rollercoaster ride through the ranks, Sheehan notes the unique bond that still exists between the players at every level of adult hurling.
“There’s a savage bond between the adult players. Before, some lads gave up hurling who had never lost an underage match.
“But now there is such a bond that the majority of those players are still playing at some level and each group supports the other. Take for example this year when we beat Éire Óg in the first round of the senior championship and the following day, the intermediates were playing Smith O’Brien’s and all the seniors were there as a group to support the lads.”
“The county and All-Ireland 2013 successes have also been hugely important for this club.” adds Liddy. “The numbers have never been as high at underage level and it has been a continuous upward curve since 2013. Between being inspired by older players and the coaching at underage level, the interest has gone through the roof.
“Even the fact that the seniors are in the county final again this year has been a boost because the Under 13’s were in a shield final against Doora/Barefield last week and a couple of the seniors happened to be on the ball wall.
“And for those Under 13’s, it was all they were talking about. It was as if One Direction were at the wall, it was absolute chaos as the players were talking about how they struck the ball, what side they were using and even what hurleys they were using.”
And just to bring it all back home, John Lynch who has two sons (Sean and Cathal) on Sunday’s panel, aptly summed up the unrivalled merits of being involved with developing underage players.
“For me, our involvement with them was rewarded with the likes of Seadna running up the wing with the ball in the All-Ireland replay of 2013 for the last goal. It was a particular highlight and certainly answers the question of why do you go down to the field and train teams at underage level.
“As I said earlier, If you’re hitting the crossbar, you don’t mind. You don’t necessarily have to win them all, in fact you’re not going to win them all.
“So if we can keep producing players that will be there-or-thereabouts, we’d be happy with that.”