Lory Meagher Cup: Warwickshire winning the generation game
The English midlands is host to a proud GAA tradition
Warwickshire celebrate last year’s Lory Meagher Cup victory at Croke Park. Photograph: Inpho
If and when Daniel Crowley makes his debut for Arsenal , there will be more than a few glasses raised to his success in the GAA strongholds of Warwickshire. The teenager is regarded as one of England’s brightest homespun prospects, combining the low, slalom dribbling of Stanley Matthews with the vision of Lionel Messi. And before football claimed him, he was a regular face in the Warwickshire GAA circuit.
“Almost all of the youngsters playing Gaelic games here now are English born,” says Paddy Hoey, who has been immersed in the English GAA scene for the last 30 years and is also the manager of the Warwickshire hurling team who play in the second round of the Lory Meagher Cup today.
“In the last 10 years we have had a full-time training officer in schools and clubs. They would have Irish parents of second and third generation. The link with the Catholic primary schools is the big thing. But some English kids have come along with their friends and joined up. There would be a big awareness in the county of GAA.”
Any talk about overseas GAA evokes thoughts of London or New York or some of the newer clubs springing up across continental Europe and London. The necklace of clubs that have existed for decades across the Midlands are often forgotten.
But John Mitchels was founded in Birmingham in 1939 and appeared in an All-Ireland junior football final just seven years later.
The tradition is there. By the time Paddy Hoey left Clare 30 years ago, the Irish drift towards the huge car manufacturing plants in the Midlands had already begun to slow down. Irish emigrants were gravitating towards London.
Warwickshire is a big jurisdiction, covering Nottingham, Leicsestershire, Rugby and Northamptonshire. To survive, Warwickshire Gaels realised they had to concentrate on getting youngsters involved in the games.
“We have five clubs in Birmingham alone and three in Coventry. So there are seventeen registered clubs in the county, all with underage sides.
“We compete in Féile in hurling, football and camogie and clubs either rent or own their own ground. We purchased a field at the county ground, Páirc Na hÉireann and we have got great backing from the Overseas Association and Croke Park, from Pauric Duffy and Liam O’Neill. Jack Boothman opened the ground for us in 1989. So we have always felt included.”
Frank Short, a schoolteacher from Birmingham and father of Labour politician Claire Short, was the first chairman of Warwickshire GAA.
“He was before my time but he was a major player in the structures of Warwickshire GAA . . . he is a legend in these parts, really. I think she has an interest in the GAA and when she speaks about her heritage, she always mentions Warwickshire and her father. A lot of big business men in Birmingham have Irish roots so the club is well established in the minds of people.”
Warwickshire hurling faces the challenge to all overseas clubs: trying to get enough quality games to help improve. During the last wave of heavy Irish emigration to the Midlands, they could field teams strong enough to claim two junior All-Ireland titles: Kilkenny’s Mick Brennan was among their most celebrated players. But the next big break was the invitation to participate in the Leinster junior league in 2004, paving the way for entry into the Nicky Rackard competition a year later.
They have been in the summer championships since, making a notable breakthrough last June when they won the Lory Meagher Cup. It was Warwickshire’s first time to play in Croke Park, the opening act of what was a perfect summer for Hoey, whose native Clare became All-Ireland champions later that summer.
“It would be hard for me to say which meant more. That day of the Lory Meagher final was very special, yeah. The players will treasure it for ever really. It was an experience for the panel and anyone who was involved in Warwickshire hurling was just very proud.
“That was the our first time in Croke Park, you know. The junior finals were played in Dundalk and Kerry. We had a strong panel and training went well and it just went right for us against Longford. Up to 10 minutes to go, it was in the balance.”
The finalists meet again today in what is a must-win game for Warwickshire if they hope to retain their title.
The establishment of Lancashire as a GAA county means that several of last year’s squad are no longer eligible to play for Warwickshire this year.
As it is, they have six English born players on the hurling side; the other players are either working or studying in the Midlands. The local players have a perfectly easy dual identity: they will support England in the World Cup this year but will knock around in Fermanagh or Mayo or Kilkenny jerseys on championship days.
There has always been a good rapport between the local soccer and GAA clubs and Hoey can think of at least a half dozen youngsters who played Gaelic games that are now on the professional books at Aston Villa or Nottingham Forest or Coventry City.
Crowley is the most extravagantly talented: he made his Aston Villa under-16 debut at 12 and played for the Ireland under-15 team before his potential became obvious to English youth scouts.
Crowley’s name is already household on Sky Sports and Hoey is one of many Warwickshire GAA stalwarts delighted that the GAA has decided to allow the English broadcast giant to cover its games.
“It can only help spread the word of the game. We have huge competition from rugby and soccer in winter and then cricket in summer, so this has to help raise the profile. It gives us a great belief that the games will grow here now. The coaching is good and the key thing is getting the games on the school curriculum. Because I know from my own club Roger Casements that people enjoy coming along and playing Gaelic games over other sports.”
He is dubious, however, about the idea that he could transform a handy Warwickshire cricket batsman into a handy Warwickshire hurler.
“Mind you, Ian Bell has tried it once or twice. Not sure how much he fancied it.”