No easy road to success for Parish that loves hurling
Sunday, 18th October, 1987 is a day Athenry hurlers and supporters will never forget. All the disappointments, hard-luck stories and frustrations of decades were finally buried. The coveted 'County Cup' was on its way to the parish which loves hurling.
This was Athenry's second appearance in a senior final - the first being in 1977 when they lost narrowly to Kiltormer. After that defeat Athenry remained strong championship contenders for a few years. In 1979, for instance, Castlegar narrowly defeated Athenry in the Quarter-final of the last of the knockout championships. That Castlegar team won the County Championship and went on to capture the All-Ireland Club title. From then on, however, the Athenry senior team was in decline, and the most worrying aspect for the club was the scarcity of replacements as members of the '77 team departed the scene. The reason for this was obvious underage hurling in the club was at a low ebb.
Realising that there wasn't any easy remedy for this problem, the club made a most important decision which was to prove of great benefit. A committee was appointed within the club with full responsibility for the development of juvenile hurling and special attention was also to be given to the minor and under 21 teams.
Results were almost immediate. In 1981 Athenry won the Minor B championship, having gone 13 years without a county title of any kind. In the same year the juveniles made their own breakthrough by winning the Galway Community Games hurling championship.
In the following years underage successes came thick and fast for Athenry, the highlights being the All-Ireland Community Games in '82, Feile na nGael '84, three Feile na Coiribe titles in-a-row, '83 to '85, two Under-16 titles, '85 and '86 and of course the Minor championships of '86 and ' 87.
Meanwhile the club's senior hurlers were struggling to find championship form. From '81 to '85 they failed to reach the knockout stages and were in the relegation zone on a couple of occasions, without ever being in real danger of losing their senior status. Improvements on the field began in 1986 and continued the following year.
Memories that last forever and never equaled - 'First County Final victory'
At the start of 1987 steps were taken to improve Athenry's chances. Former Galway hurler and Offaly All-Ireland medal winner Tom Donohue was appointed trainer and more 'newcomers' were added to the panel - Paul Hardiman, Eamonn Keogh, Bian Feeney, Gerry Keane, Joe Rabbitte were among a group of very young players now fighting for places on the senior team. The training was thorough once again, and then came the champioship games and P. J. Molloy's phenomenal displays and scoring feats. Athenry were on the march again. P.J.'s influence was enormous off the field as well as on it. He himself would be the first to admit that he got an outstanding response from all his team-mates.
The Semi-final victory over Gort set the scene for the most exciting week the parish ever experienced as the preparations for the final got underway. Flags, banners, sponsorship, speculation about the team, continual match chat, arrangements for after the game, etc. contributed to a hectic build-up. However, it was business as usual for the players - training on Tuesday and Thursday nights and the usual puck-about on Saturday evening when the 'away' players were able to join their colleagues.
Then came the all-important hour at a packed Duggan Park. From Athenry's point of view the most pleasing aspect was the manner in which the whole team, both young and experienced, rose to the occasion. An all-out struggle for supremacy, some spectacular scores and outstanding defensive play from both teams made this a rousing final. True to their tradition, Castlegar pulled out all the stops, and there was no relaxation for the Athenry followers until that long whistle sounded.
Having come within a point of sensationally reaching the county final in 1986 Athenry were according to John McIntyre in his preview of the county championship leaving no stone unturned in their preparation. He pointed out that the element of surprise was now gone but they were beginning to reap the rewards of producing a succession of fine juvenile teams. Rated eight he forecast that 'Athenry may have to give way to Mullagh in their crucial group clash and that would cost them a place in the quarter-finals'.
Inspired by P.J. Molloy, who scored eleven points, Athenry destroyed the challenge of St. Thomas'in their first round game by 1-18 to 2-5 at Loughrea. In the process P.J. showed that he was extremely fit and able to resume his intercounty career if called upon. His side showed no mercy and led by 1-14 to 1-5 with Thomas' getting their second goal in the final seconds.
Trailing by a point at half-time Athenry turned in an astonishing second half to defeat Mullagh by 2-13 to 1-9. They stepped up the pace after the break and Mullagh despite the steadying influnce of county man Peter Finnerty suddenly began to fall apart. P.J. Molloy again proved to be an nspiration but the introduction of a very young Gerry Keane at midfield helped turn the game around.
A below par Athenry still had plenty to spare at the end of a desperately poor game against Craughwell at Ballindereen. The winners by 1-9 to 2-2 always had the edge but never found any rhythm in their play. A feature of the game was the outstanding performence of Gerry Keane marking Craughwell dangerman Michael Connolly.
Brimful of confidence that they were about to witness the 'match of the day' hurling fans flocked to St. Brendan's Park, Loughrea in their thousands for the meeting of Athenry of Athenry and Sarsfields. They were not dissappointed, especially those from Athenry, and witnessed the start of a great rivalry between the sides that still exists. Despite the shock of Athenry's opening scoring blitz Sarsfields, who were nine points down after fifteen minutes, led by Joe Cooney battled back into contention.
At halftime Athenry led by 4-5 to 1-10 but on the resumption of play that lead was cut to three points. P.J. Molloy sent a penalty to the Sarsfields net and further goals by Declan Higgins, his third on the day, and brother Pat kept Athenry ahead. In a cracking game that produced ten goals and twentysix points Athenry were deserving winners by 7-10 to 3-16.
This was Athenry's most important victory in years and the confidence it instilled in a new look emerging team was invaluable. On the evidence of this excellant performence Athenry in most people's view were strong contenders to win their first ever county senior championship. On the day it was their forwards, inspired once again by P. J. Molloy, who were on fire in particular the inside trio of Gerry Dempsey (1-1), Pat Higgins (2-1) and Declan Higgins (3-1).
Team: Mattie Gannon, Anthony Jennings, Billy Caulfield, Pascal Healy, Michael Cahill, Dermot Monaghan, Gerry Keane, Paul Hardiman, John Hardiman, Sean Kindregan, Sean Keane, P. J. Molloy, Gerry Dempsey, Pat Higgins, Declan Higgins. Sub: Mixie Donohue.
It seemed to be the same old story another gallant effort but simply not good enough on the day. The crowd were already making towards the exits, Kiltormer were three points ahead and in command with only three minutes left in the county quarterfinal at Loughrea. In a desperate attempt to swing the balance Athenry brought on young Joe Rabbitte. Things began to happen, and, with a minute left he passed to P.J. Molloy who sent a rasper to the Kiltormer net. The sides were level and the crowd stood in their tracks while those outside tried to get back in. Athenry won the puck out and played it to their scorer-in-chief who split the uprights for the winning point.
"It was better than the All-Ireland Final win, Molloy was majic" declared an overjoyed Athenry supporter at the final whistle wrote J. B. Donoghue in the Connacht Tribune. He went on to write "His teams' victory over Kiltormer was one of the best county championship matches that it has been our privilage to witness in a generation". Few who were present would argue with that assesment as two powerful sides battled it out for sixty breathtaking minutes.
Level on six occasions the outcome was in doubt throughout this epic encounter. It was eight points each at halftime as both teams were applauded off the field for the break. All told. it a most a most impressive display by a well balanced Athenry outfit. With Mattie Gannon rock solid in the Athenry goals and full backs Billy Caulfield and Barry Kearns in top form Kiltormer's front line was kept on short rations. Pascal Healy in the half line was well supported by Gerry Keane and Dermot Monoghan while at midfield John and Paul Hardiman showed that they were the best prospects to emerge during the year. Up front, P.J. and the Higgins brothers Declan and Pat proved to be too much of a handful for Conor Hayes and company.
When the final whistle sounded the score read Athenry 2-12 Kiltormer 0-17 and the scenes of joy and despair had to be seen to be believed as Athenry moved another step closer to that elusive County Cup.
Yet again, P.J.Molloy's contribution for Athenry in the county semi-final was unestimable as he almost single-handed orchestrated and executed the demolition of Gort. The Athenryman produced on of the most memorable individual performences ever witnessed in Galway club hurling. The Connacht Tribune wrote "The 35-year old vetern of many battles at both club and county intermingled anticipation, opportunism, bravery and cheek in a breathtaking concocation, for which Gort simple had no answer.....In the final analysis this match was about one man whose performence will not be forgotten by those lucky enough to see it."
The issue was in the balance until the final eight minutes when the winners began to pull away.
The famine for Athenry ended when they raised their arms aloft in a glorious victory over championship specialists Castlegar. Emotions ran free for the Bobby Gardner managed team and thousands of Athenry supporters as captain Mattie Gannon stepped up to receive the cup from Hurling Board Chairman Tom Callinan. The team's committment, dedication and all consuming will to win brought the county cup to Athenry for the first time in over a century of endavour.
The game had many memorable moments and some superb scores though it will hardly be remembered as a classic contest. But that didn't matter to those who enjoy the thrills and excitement of competitive hurling on a great occasion. It goes without saying that this had to be P. J. Molloy's day. In his match report Jim Carney of the Tuam Herald wrote " For 17 years the dapper dynamo from Newcastle has throbbed at the heart of Athenry and Galway hurling. Yet for all his successes in Croke Park and on other major stages, the one honour he craved above all others eluded him, a county championship with the Club which he has given stalwart, unselfish service through thick and thin, in good times and bad, through the ups and down of an eventful but ultimately highly rewarding career". After two magnificent displays against Kiltormer and Gort it was hard to expect the same in the final but he came close to man-of-the-match status again shooting six superb points, three from play, two from frees and one from an amazing sideline cut.
However that accolade went to midfielder Pascal Healy who gave a superlative display that was the highlight of the hour. Rarely has there been so much unamimity amongst fans about who should be given the award, his heroics thrilled the 12,000 plus crowd and broke Cashel's hearts.
It was 1-6 to 1-3 for Athenry at halftime, the goal coming from Sean Keane who crashed home a P. J. Molloy sideline cut. Then he gloriously swept over a second cut from virtually the same position on the right sideline. A Pat Nolan goal for Cashel brought them right back into contention.
On the resumption Athenry hit four unanswered points from play, the first two by P. J. Molloy, the next from substitude Mixie Donohue and Seamus Kearns. Athenry were now rampant with a seven point lead but Nolan pounced for another Cashel goal to put his side back on track.
It looked bad when Michael Murphy struck another to close the gap to two but Pascal Healy, now playing his heart out at midfield set up flying Pat Higgins an important point from play. The lead was cut to two point again with time running out but Molloy again pointed a pressure point from a free. Gerry Connolly had the ball in the Athenry net but referee Eamon Whelan dissallowed it for clearly picking off the ground. That brought the curtain down on a great battle and Athenry joy was unconfined when the final whistle sounded with the score 1-12 to 2-6 in their favour.
In a year of great achievement for Galway hurling teams it was approprite that a new name would be inscribed on the cup and that the most loyal of club and county players P.J. Molloy would win a county championship medal. Athenry had other heroes in minor Paul Hardiman who showed the flair of youth at right half back, Dermot Monaghan, Pat Higgins, Sean Keane, Seamus Kearns and Gerry Dempsey. It was a great day too for team manager Bobby Gardner who saw the dream come through after forty years of service on and off the field. There was pride and satisfaction also for selectors Noel Kelly, Bill Conway, Jackie O'Shea and team trainer Tom Donohue.
Team: Mattie Gannon, Anthony Jennings, Billy Caulfield, Barry Kearns, Paul Hardiman, Dermot Monaghen, Michael Cahill, Pascal Healy, John Hardiman, Seamus Kearns, Sean Keane, P.J. Molloy, Gerry Dempsey, Pat Higgins, Declan Higgins. Subs: Mixie Donohue, Gerry Keane.
The victorious team got a reception in Athenry on their return home that would be hard to surpass- suffice to say that a cup was never more appreciated by an area steeped in hurling tradition. The celebrations continued all week and on Saturday night the bonfires blazed from Derrydonnell to Colemanstown as the team made their way through the Parish. October 1987 will always bring back sweet memories and if the old walls and fields of Athenry, about which they sing so lustily, had feelings they'd well understand the euphoria 'round them.
Minor and Under 21 glory makes huring history in County
An Athenry side which always looked to have the edge in overall ability and scoring power were given a late fright by Castlegar in the County Minor Final at Ardrahan. At the end there could be no doubting that Athenry deserved to win but when they lost the lead for the first time with six minutes remaining Castlegar seemed poised to strike for victory. Two points up with three minutes remaining it looked like Athenry's previous dominance counted for nothing. However, the county champions responded magnificently to this adversity. Neil Clarke who came on during the game grabbed a ball twenty meters from the Caslegar goal and sent a superb shot to the roof of the net. That score put Athenry 1-11 to 3-4 ahead and in the remaining four minutes played by the referee Cormac Cullinane landed the insurance point to secure a deserved victory.
At halftime after playing with wind advantage Athenry led by 0-6 to1-1 and it looked like Castlegar were ideally placed when they levelled the scores after ninety seconds. Instead it was Athenry who gabbed control of the proceedings with points by Cormac Cullinane and John Rynne. Still under pressure against the elements Athenry resuffled their defence with Gerry Keane moving back to centre-back in an inspired move.
The winners won their second title in a row by being far more consistant over the hour. Cathal Moran brought off some great saves in the Athenry goal. In front of him Brendan and Eamonn Keogh, the inspiring Joe Maloney and Gerry Keane in the second half were at their best under pressure. Up front Brian Feeney, Joe Rabbitte and Cormac Cullinane done well.
Team: Cathal Moran, Paddy Kelly, Eamonn Keogh, Brendan Keogh, Joe Maloney, Paul Hardiman, Tommy Morrissey, Gerry Keane, Brian Feeney, Brendan Morrissey, Joe Rabbitte, John Rynne, Cormac Cullinane, Kevin Holian, Padraic Smyth. Sub: Neil Clarke.