Loughgiel continue to reap the benefits of Nelson's tried and trusted methodology
ALL-IRELAND CLUB HURLING SEMI-FINAL:Legendary Antrim hurling man eagerly anticipating clash against St Thomas
You can’t retire passion. When Jim Nelson agreed to meet Loughgiel manager PJ O’Mullan jnr for “a chat” around Christmas of 2009, he told himself it wasn’t going to be anything more than that.
O’Mullan’s father had played for Nelson on the Antrim team which reached the 1989 All-Ireland final. And O’Mullan was from Loughgiel, one of the staunchest Glens of Antrim clubs and a village that breathes hurling.
For six years running, Loughgiel had finished as runners-up in the Antrim county final and Jim Nelson knew they felt stunned and stuck. Nelson owed Antrim hurling nothing. He had received a lifetime achievement award from the Ulster Council and had reached the age of 70 and felt content to just enjoy hurling as a spectator. He spoke for four hours with O’Mullan about what could be done with Loughgiel. When he got back to his car, he had somehow agreed to coach the Loughgiel team.
Three years on and Loughgiel are the defending Ulster and All-Ireland champions. And just last summer, Nelson responded to an SOS from Antrim. The circumstances were not promising. Gerry Wallace, the manager, had quit in the turbulent aftermath to Antrim’s shocking loss to Westmeath. They were in limbo in the championship.
“Somebody said to me: you are not seriously going to take that,” Nelson remembers. “And I said: I can never refuse it. Tell me how. I just don’t know if Antrim call how you could say no to them. It was only for a few weeks so I felt it was reasonable.”
Antrim won the Ulster championship and got something from the season.
Nelson stepped down again. Tomorrow, he will be back on the sideline with Loughgiel. He is about as far from retirement as a hurling man can be.
“Every year is my last year – one of them has to be. I thought I was done last year until Antrim came calling. Och, I’m glad that I did because we ended up winning something. But look, my family support what I do and even though sometimes you would like to be staying in the house, once you commit to it, that is that. There are some wild nights for hurling.
“We trained in Slaughtneil a few weeks ago because they have lights there and we were close to abandoning training because you are just sitting at the bottom of the Glenshane Pass and the wind just comes down it like a hurricane. You can cry and moan but it is a good position we are in.”
Nelson’s is one of those quietly magnificent GAA figures. Mick O’Dwyer’s regal indifference to age is rightly lauded but Nelson is of the same generation as the Kerry man and is held in the same esteem in the hurling enclaves of Antrim.
He was the architect of one of the most fabulous All-Ireland championship stories of modern times, when Antrim beat Offaly in the All-Ireland semi-final of 1989. The Faithful County players responded by applauding the Ulster men off the field.
Antrim’s achievement was slightly overshadowed because Tipperary ended a 18-year spell without the McCarthy Cup in winning the final that September. But in order to make Antrim that good, Nelson had to persuade players to become a team. Antrim is the most romantic of all the hurling counties: it is so self-sufficient it is almost a land apart.
“When Loughgiel and Dunloy play a league match, you might get 4,000 people there,” says Nelson. “The rivalry . . . it is in the DNA of places like Cushendall and Ballycastle. It is healthy . . . now people do hurl on the edge, but when it’s over, its over.”
Still, translating that fierce local loyalty into a collective in the Antrim dressingroom hasn’t always been easy. Nelson wouldn’t permit players from the same clubs to train alongside each other in the 1980s. He used every trick he knew to coax his players into the idea of being one team. It remains a perpetual problem for Antrim managers.
Hurling has been part of Nelson’s life since he was a primary school pupil in St Galls.
Brother Austin and Brother Thomas, both Tipperary men, were his first coaches. The city game was always steady and Nelson played and coached in St Paul’s all his life. But in the Glens, hurling helped to form the natural rhythm of life.
He remembers 1983 when a great Loughgiel team suddenly bloomed and won the All-Ireland championship, beating St Rynagh’s in a replay. Nothing much had changed when the club qualified for last year’s final.
“Dominic McKinley’s wife helps with food and stuff after training. Joey Scullion’s wife is in charge of the gear. People help out. It is a real traditional thing. So the game has a hold on the village. And once you get as far as we did, it illuminates everything that is good about the place.”
When Nelson met the Loughgiel players three years ago, the first thing he asked them to do was to let go of those six losing seasons. “If we were going to go on a journey, we had to travel light.” Then he made a bigger demand of them. He asked them to adapt to a different style of hurling.
“Traditionally, Loughgiel liked to play the ball on the ground and they did win championships with ground hurling. My style was always more attacking and players supporting each other so there will always be a man to distribute to and recycling the ball. They bought into the philosophy – after losing six, they were probably prepared to try anything! My philosophy is based on ball contact and getting things technically right. They are the things I would push for.
“And the players . . . I can’t speak highly enough of the way they responded to anything PJ and myself have asked.”
Loughgiel’s resurgence has forced its neighbours to respond, helping to keep the rivalry vivid and light. The club is also a shining light for the Antrim game and their consistency makes the uncertainty which governs the county hurling team all the more baffling.
Liam Watson, one of Loughgiel’s most talented players and never a man to call a spade by any other name, spoke of the problems in Antrim hurling.
“It’s just bitterness and that’s why the county will go nowhere,” he said.
Nelson is optimistic that Kevin Ryan, the new coach and former Waterford hurler, can get the county side back on the right track.
“Kevin will bring certain flair to the job. But he has to charter a course. If players are fragmented in approach, no matter how good a hurler they are, they won’t achieve anything.”
Loughgiel can provide the example for the county team. The scenes in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day last year surpassed what anyone expected. Now they are one match away from the biggest day again. St Thomas, their opposition today, fascinates Nelson: they are literally a brotherhood.
“To have a manager and six sons and then a couple of brothers – it is an incredibly tight-knit team. That makes it easy to control and for people to buy into it. They came through a tough championship and won it on merit. Loughgiel will have to be at their best. Parnell Park is where we have been for the past few years and are fairly used to it. I think both teams are good quality hurling teams and a fast sod would benefit both. ”
The eyes of Antrim hurling will be watching with interest, and none more keenly than those of Jim Nelson.