Niall Gilligan is closing in on his 100th championship appearance for his beloved Sixmilebridge — the century mightn’t come until next year but retirement isn’t on the horizon as he’s having too much fun with the game and everything that goes with it, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
A FEW weeks ago when Henry Shefflin opened an old eye-wound when taking aim at Gerry Quinn over an incident in the All-Ireland Quarter-Final replay between Clare and Kilkenny in Thurles in 2004, it was Niall Gilligan who had a humorous take on it all.
King Henry wasn’t too pleased with Quinn in his autobiography. To begin with in a roundabout way he accepted the Corofin man’s assertion that the eye injury he suffered at the hurley of Quinn wasn’t a deliberate act, only to take it all back when claiming indignation at how a telephone conversation between the two ended.
According to Shefflin, Quinn’s parting shot was ‘Jaysus, we had mighty craic on the beer all day yesterday’.
Having read the extract from the book Gilligan messaged Quinn on Facebook, wondering was “that true that you and some other players used to go on the beer after a championship defeat?”
It was a great gag — true to Gilligan, for whom hurling has always seemed to be about many different things.
Yes, it’s been serious, serious stuff, and could only be when you’ve hunted for the Munster and All-Ireland senior titles and All Stars that he won in his stellar 15-year Clare career that he bookended in 2011 when winning Munster and All-Ireland intermediate honours.
And, it’s equally serious in Sixmilebrige, where they deal in the currency of county, Munster and All-Ireland club titles, with Gilligan being the one ever-present voice in the dressing room and man of action on the field in everything the ‘Bridge have achieved since 1995.
That’s two decades; 20 years in which Gilligan has played 94 senior championship games and is by far the most prolific scorer in the history of the Clare senior championship.
That’s how serious he has been about his hurling at county and club level, but…..it’s also and has always been about something more than the winning, the medals, the top score awards etc..
The craic. The camaraderie. The hoopla.
The way with one Facebook sentence and show of solidarity with his former Clare colleague that he can effectively and humorously tell King Henry to relax and lift his blade instead of lowering it.
Maybe therein lies why Gilligan, at 39 years of age, is still chasing the dream of more success with his beloved ‘Bridge. Chasing it with a smile and the thrill of the chase as you call it — whether it’s the hound after the hare up in Liscannor or coursing closer to home in Tradaree or chasing more county titles.
“I love it first of all and all that goes with it,” he says, “and I have an understanding wife that allows me to do it. I’m building a house for the last two or three years. I see lads my age now and they’re doing triathlons and all different kinds of things — running and cycling, but luckily enough for me I can still hurl.
“I enjoy the training and everything that goes with it — the social side of things. When you’re able why not. That’s the way I look at it,” he adds.
Thing is, during the Clare Cup campaign back in 2013 he thought he mightn’t be able to do it anymore. The ‘Bridge had reached a first county final in nine years in 2011 but lost a war of attrition in the mud of Cusack Park against Crusheen; then in 2012 they didn’t get beyond the group stages, while in ’13 he broke his arm in a challenge game against Blackrock before the first round of the championship in which the ‘Bridge slumped to a shock defeat to a mediocre enough Clarecastle side.
“I did think after that that it might be the end,” he admits, “but the injury happened in the middle of the season and when I came back we went on a roll and we won the county final. When something like that happens you forget all about the injury and I had no ill-effects from it.
“Maybe it was a selfish reason I stayed. We had gone back a lot — Sixmilebridge had taken a bad dip in form when players hadn’t come through in the mid-noughties, so maybe if then was now would I still be hurling at 39? I don’t think I would,” he adds.
Gilligan stayed. Because of the talent coming through, but also because the ‘Bridge would have being conceding defeat in the 2013 championship had he stayed away. The stats back this up.
Back he came and hit 3-32 in the remaining five games, with his 1-6 out of the ‘Bridge’s winning tally of 1-10 in the county final win over Newmarket-on-Fergus speaking for itself.
“It’s a great time to involved,” he says. “We went on a great run at underage — we won four Under 16 A titles, only won one minor but were in a heap of finals and won four Under 21s over the last seven years.
“With the talent that’s there now you’re always in contention and we’d like to think that we’re always in the top tier of three or four so ever year you’d be hoping to get to a county final or semi-final at least.
“The core of the team is aged 22 to 25 and they want to get the most out of themselves. They are a driven bunch of lads. They really enjoy the hurling and the craic of everything that goes with it — that makes it easier for everyone to go training and trying and win along the way makes it way more enjoyable.
I love it first of all and all that goes with it. When you’re able why not. That’s the way I look at it. Maybe it was a selfish reason I stayed. We had gone back a lot – Sixmilebridge had taken a bad dip in form when players hadn’t come through in the mid-noughties, so maybe if then was now would I be still hurling at 39? I don’t think I would.
“The new structure of the championship is very good — you are only focusing on the game in hand. When you had 20 senior teams there were some games that were insignificant really. The way it is now makes every game is important and the best teams come to the top.”
That’s Clonlara and Sixmilebridge.
In 2013 they played each other twice, the ‘Bridge winning the round three game by 1-18 to 3-10 on the back of Gilligan’s haul of 1-5, while his 0-8 contribution got them over the line in the semi-final that finished 1-11 to 0-11.
“Clonlara have phenomenal talent and that’s just not saying that,” says Gilligan. “We know the six players that they have on the county senior team. They have been very well represented on all county teams — they had four on the county minor team a few years back, there are the Under 21s and if you go through their team nearly every one of them have played county minor, Under 21 or senior more so than ourselves.
“They have been disappointed that they didn’t get it together over the last couple of years, but now that they’ve got back to a final I’m sure they’ll really be looking to make this one count.
“We’ve all heard that there were little bits of controversy between different factions within the club when Sean (Stack) came in, but it seems now that he’s got everyone together and from Sean’s point of view he’d love to get Clonlara to win this one. It would really be another feather in his cap — he has a great CV but this is a big one for him.”
But it’s as big for the ‘Bridge, in a clash that Gilligan calls 50/50. “I would be expecting a big crowd it could be the best county final in years. There are very good hurlers on both sides and coming down the last five/ten minutes of a county final it will be vary hard to call. Whoever holds their nerve the best and has a bit of luck on the day. That’s who’ll win.”