Brothers in arms prepared for new adventure with Ballaghaderreen
CONNACHT CHAMPIONSHIP:The closely-knit Mayo champions are determined to make an impact in the Connacht championship
If and when Ballaghaderreen next stages a local musical, Seven Brides For . . . will surely come up for consideration. Having won the Mayo senior championship for the first time since 2008, it has emerged the town’s football team has an almost suspiciously high number of brothers playing.
The Kilcullens, the Drakes, the Solans, the Kelly, the Rogers and the Conways (although Gary is injured) are all on the current panel. But for the fact that Andy Hanley’s brother, Pearce, has been playing Australian Rules with Brisbane for the last four years, the brothers’ set-count would be even higher. Add Barry Regan and his nephew Aaron Lynch to the mix and you have a dressingroom that is truly dominated by families.
“It is unusual,” agrees manager Mark Dowd. “But Ballaghaderreen is a small enough community so to have five sets of brothers like that is good because you are talking to groups rather than individuals as such. They know each other well and they work hard for each other. There is more of a family feel about it. If you take the two Drakes in the backs . . . one plays in front of the other and there is good communication between them.
“Even the two Kilcullens – one plays wing forward and one plays midfield so they are beside each other and they can read each other’s game and back each other up. It is definitely a help from my perspective.”
Ballaghaderreen’s history perfectly illustrates the strength of football throughout the Mayo interior. The town’s gaping main street boulevard is appropriate given that it sits flush on the Mayo-Roscommon border and is caught in a perpetual tug-of-love from both counties. The team famously won the 2008 Mayo championship, bridging a gap which stretched back to 1972.
But there was a pedigree of seriously good players between those two celebratory seasons: the O’Mahony brothers, the late great John Morley, Dermot Flanagan Noel Durkin, Tom Morgan and Kevin Cahill were all central players for Mayo.
“ Kevin Cahill coaches U-8s and is on the club committee now,” says Con Moynihan. “A lot of these players would have watched Kevin playing football for Mayo for years and looked up to him. So it has come full circle and he is a brilliant coach with the younger age. He came back for one season in the Junior B and he was huge for us, just his distribution and calmness. The team actually won the championship and that was Kevin’s first county medal with the club.”
Ballaghaderreen’s experience shows just how hard it is to win the Mayo title. Frank Kelly, whose sons Peter and Barry are on the current team, was a player in 1972 and managed the team in 2008. Even though there was a 36-year gap between the wins, the connections are still strong.
Connie and Philip Moynihan are uncles of current chairman Con, John and Dan O’Mahony are uncles of current squad member Mattie Towey and Joe Dillon’s son (also Joe) is a member of the current squad. Mickey and Tom Towey of the ’72 squad are uncles of current player, Jimmy.
In 1972, Ballaghaderreen made it to the Connacht club final. But when they next won the Mayo title in 2008, they felt afterwards they didn’t do themselves full justice in their provincial campaign.
“It is important for the club,” Frank Kelly says now. “We did treat it seriously in 2008. But it was a long time since we had won it and there was a relief. This time, the attitude is that we are going to give this one hell of a shot. There is a steely determination to do their best. But when I started managing them in 2006, John O’Mahony was with me and John brought a new level of dedication and application. He went back to manage Mayo then but his input was invaluable. He showed everyone what was needed to win a championship.”
There is one other peculiar connection between the Ballaghaderreen champions of 40 years ago and the present team. In August of 1972, Jim Fleming, one of the leading lights on the side, was involved in a car crash and his injuries ruled him out of the remainder of their campaign. This August, the club had to cope with the injury Andy Moran, attacking conductor for both club and county, suffered playing for Mayo.
“It happened right before we played our quarter-final on the Saturday,” says Dowd. “And we were training early on Sunday morning, I think at 9am. And the first thing we discussed was the fact that Andy was out for the season. He was a great leader for us and I asked the other lads to step up and give more and they responded. We kicked 2-19 against Garrymore and our forwards showed well. It was important to put up a score like that in Andy’s absence.”
The closeness was crucial to their durability. Frank Kelly watched his sons come through on promising underage teams before he started coaching them at senior level and he agrees family links are important.
“It would make the team very close. This group won three under-21 titles together and won at under-16 and under-14. So two groups came together. They have this bond and they are winners. Back in the 1970s, possibly, players didn’t mix or socialise as much. This is a very close bunch and that has helped. We have good leaders there.”
Mark Dowd says the presence of so many brothers helps but he feels the team dynamic is similar to that of any dressingroom. They still row and challenge each other – more fiercely if anything. “While they look out for each other, they all have their own personalities,” he stresses.
“I came into a good set-up, in fairness. Kieran Gallagher was here last year and left a good template to work from and I just asked the players to push it on a bit. And they have. There is no set of brothers the same. Any night at training you could have the Kellys or the Solan brothers taking the head off each other in a match.
“If you took the two Kilcullens alone, they are two big, strong physical men and they go into everything wholeheartedly and I would say the same two boys would be fighting over the dinner table too.”
Like any club, Ballaghaderreen has lost several players to emigration but the absence most keenly felt was a matter of choice: Pearce Hanley’s outstanding displays for Ireland in the U-17 International Rules series in 2005 made him a natural target for Australian Rules scouts and after signing for the Brisbane Lions, he made remarkably quick progress and made his full senior debut within three years.
His departure was a blow for the club and for Mayo; he left when John O’Mahony was returning to manage the county and had high hopes for his club man.
“We would love to have him. Unfortunately he is already back into pre-season. He would have been a great asset for us; he is a big man and if he was based here I think he would be in the Mayo set-up. But we have losses. Andy Moran is out, Ronan McGrath got injured.
They are big players for us but we have just got on with it. You have to deal with these things – we are missing Gary Conway too through injury but he remains an important part of our squad.”
Tomorrow, they make the short journey to Castlebar to host Curry. When the clubs met in a challenge game a few months ago the Sligo men won by a couple of points.
Neither had an idea that they would be meeting at this level then. After winning the county final against Ballintubber, the Ballaghaderreen men were back in training by Tuesday night. They have since beaten Shrule and Knockmore in the league and at least feel ready for this match.
And of course, there is still a chance that they will meet St Brigid’s, the defending champions and the last remaining link to the 1972 Ballaghaderreen team. Sean Kilbride was another member of that 1972 county champion side. Scroll any St Brigid’s team sheet of recent years and you will come across the names of Senan and Ian Kilbride. They are, of course, brothers.