It would be easy for players that have won five or six county and three All-Ireland Club medals to take it easy or walk away having fulfilled most of their hurling ambitions at club level. But for Athenry senior hurlers the easy option was never their way of doing things and the dust had hardly settled after the 200I final when players and management were planning for the year ahead.
Training resumed on the now infamous Kathleen Bane's hill during February in conditions that would test the resolve and commitment of most players. Motivated by the desire to win another county title and make amends for their narrow defeat by Clarinbridge the players responded to the challenge in a way that surprised many people. Winning back the county cup became as important to them as winning their first ever title and they applied themselves fully to the task.
It was never going to be easy with the drawn out stop-start way the county championship is now being run. The difficulty facing Pat Nally and his selectors of having to be ready to play championship games, with very little notice, during the months of April to November made it almost impossible to prepare properly. But to their credit they kept their focus and were ready for each step on the way.
Kilconieron were Athenry's opponents in the first round of the senior championship and were inspired by Liam Burke in the opening half at Loughrea. On a terrible day for hurling Athenry failed to make an impression when playing against the elements but recorded a 1-17 to 1-9 victory. Leading by five points against Turloughmore at halftime in their next game at Ballindereen they looked in a comfortable position but within ten minutes Turloughmore were level and Athenry seemed in serious trouble. As the danger signals flashed they went up a few gears and ran out easy winners by 2-13 to 1-9. A victory over Ardrahan by 2-16 to 2-11 secured a place in the knockout stages of the championship with a game against Abbey-Duniry left to play.
In the county quarterfinal at Ballinasloe, Athenry were deserving 1-19 to 1-10 winners after a bruising battle against Loughrea. Joe Rabbitte interrupted his honeymoon to return home for the game and it was just as well he did. He played himself to a standstill in one of the best games of the championship. Despite trailing by two points at the interval Athenry had an easier than expected 0-15 to 0-8 victory over Carnmore in the semi-final at Kenny Park.
In the county final at the refurbished Pearse Stadium against great rivals Sarsfields the weather again was a factor with both sides anxious to play against the strong wind in the opening half. Athenry captain Brendan Keogh won the toss and faced the elements and a confident Sarsfields side. It was no place for the faint hearted as both teams gave it all in battle for supremacy in the opening exchanges. When Sarsfields opened a six point lead Athenry had to call on all their experience to stay in touch. David Donohue and Eugene Cloonan picked off a few great points and at the interval only five points separated the teams.
At the start of the second half it was Athenry's turn to hit the ground running and they scored a goal and three points again from David Donohue and Eugene Cloonan in the opening seven minutes to take the lead. Though Athenry never relinquished that lead from then until the end Sarsfields stayed in touch with two second half goals. The final score of 1-16 to 3-7 gave Athenry their seventh county title since making the breakthrough in 1987. David Donohue with 1-4 from play was man-of-the-match with a powerhouse display from Joe Rabbitte being a major factor in Athenry's success. Eugene Cloonan again came to the rescue in a county final with six difficult points three from play and three from frees.
Brendan Keogh led his team back to Athenry to the most enthusiastic "welcome home" for a winning team in years. There was considerable satisfaction for players; officials and supporters at winning back the county cup and a clear signal that Athenry still continue to be a powerful hurling force. Team manager Pat Nally and selectors Billy Caulfield, Jackie O'Shea and Martin T Kelly had again delivered a county championship success that they had worked very hard to achieve over the previous twelve months.
The absence of their star midfielder Michael Cunniffe due to illness weakened Four Roads Connacht final hopes against Athenry who won with a comfortable margin. A week later the team, officials and over a hundred supporters flew to London for the All-Ireland Club quarterfinal against Sean Treacy's. The Galway champions were easy winners with Eugene Cloonan hitting 4-9 in a game that was held up in the second half to allow a helicopter make an emergency landing on the field to assist a road accident victim.
Playing club hurling at the highest level and being successful has enriched the lives of players and t'he team's supporters from far and near in recent years. Throughout the country Athenry hurlers are admired for their contribution to club hurling and the success they have achieved at national level. Perhaps sometime in the future what this group of players will be fully appreciated - three
magnificent All-Ireland Club titles and five County titles in seven seasons is a remarkable record. Money could not buy the enjoyment they have given their followers.
Athenry's future prospects were boosted when the club's under21 team were victorious in the delayed 2001 county final last Easter defeating Castlegar by 1-8 to 1-7 in a replay. Having lost their opening game to Craughwell they availed of the backdoor to capture the title playing a further seven knockout games. After defeating Loughrea by four points they drew with Tommy Larkins in the county quarterfinal and won the replay by one point. They overcame Turloughmore to reach the final which was played at Kenny Park and in a replay ended Castlegar 's hopes of three in a row under21 titles.
The west Galway side had to rely too much on ace free taker Ger Farragher and came up against a tenacious and gritty Athenry defence. Diarmaid Cloonan towered over the Cashel forwards and cleared almost everything that came his way. Others to catch the eye were Shane Donohue, Derek Carroll, Liam Howley, David Donohue and Cormac Cloonan. As the first half entered injury time Liam Howley set up Cormac Cloonan for a decisive goal and gave his side a 1-3 to 0-3 interval lead.
The second half was close and exciting with Castlegar piling on the pressure in the closing stages. But manager Billy Caulfield's charges rose to the occasion in fine style and were worthy winners. With several postponements for various reasons it was also a difficult competition to win and credit too must go to trainer Paul Hardiman and selectors John Coll, Pascal Healy and Paddy Gannon.
A large crowd turned out on the 17th August 2002 for the official opening by Mr. Sean Kelly, President Elect of the GAA of the Club's new clubhouse and grounds at Carnaun. Making his first official visit to the province the President Elect watched a lively game between the 2000 club champions Athenry and 2001 champions Birr. The new amenities, adds another dimension to the club and provides the players with the best possible training facilities. The National Lottery and substancial contributions from the local community funded the development, which cost in the region of half a million punts.
After all the disappointment for Galway hurling fans during the year, it ended on a positive note with the All-Ireland title going to the Vincent Mullins managed Galway Intermediate Team. In a replayed final at Birr the first half was even enough but Galway took over in the second half and eventually had a great victory with a score line which read Galway 2-15, Tipperary 1-10. Mixie Donohue was one of the Galway selectors.
The untimely death of Seamus Cullinane, retired Principal of Athenry Vocational School caused great shock and sadness in the club and community. The former outstanding Galway and Castlegar hurler played a huge part in the success and development of Athenry GAA Club.
All through his life he displayed a keen interest in hurling. Both as a player and mentor, he made a very significant contribution. His first taste of success came with his native Castlegar winning the minor championship in 1949. This was followed with senior championship medals in 1950, '52, '53, '57 and '58 and he won a Fitzgibbon medal with U.C.G in 1958. His greatest honour came in 1958 when he led Galway as captain to an Oireachtas title.
Seamus played minor hurling for Galway in 1950 and '51 and featured in the Combined Universities team of 1954. In addition to captaining the Galway seniors in 1958 championship he represented Connacht in 1959 Railway Cup Final against Munster.
Within Athenry Vocational School he was a wonderful support and inspirational figure and encouraged teams to their many successes.
At club level in Athenry he trained and coached several underage winning teams and was manager of the senior team that reached the 1977 County Final. He is also remembered for his outstanding work and leadership in the purchase and development of Raheen Grounds. Go ndeana Dia Trocaire air.