Youth, experience and winning connection may be enough to end drought
Tipperary club’s rise in recent years owes much to underage development
Nenagh Éire Óg’s Kevin Tucker celebrates reaching the Tipperary SHC Final with two of his sons, Aodhán and Eanna, after beating Kildangan at Semple Stadium. Photograph: Bridget Delaney
It hasn’t escaped attention in Tipperary that back in 1995 when Nenagh Éire Óg won the club’s only senior hurling championship to date it was in an autumn that saw Clare win the All-Ireland hurling title and Dublin the football.
A more tangible link with that team is its only member who will be hurling in Sunday’s county final against Loughmore-Castleiney.
Kevin Tucker turned 38 last month and while not zipping down the wing any more, he continues to provide a mobile presence at centrefield.
“I was still very young in ’95,” he says, “and there were a lot of senior lads on the team. I was just in my third year and I was blessed because there were other lads who had retired the year before.
“If you’d told me back then that 18 years later I’d still be waiting for my second medal I don’t think I’d have believed you.”
The club’s rise owes much to the traditional methods of underage development. Since Éire Óg’s last appearance in a county final in 2006, the club has won six divisional and two county minor titles.
For club chair Jim Nagle, this season hasn’t been out of the blue. “We were expecting to come again,” he says. “Expectations have grown after a bit of a transition. There’s a good combination of young lads and older, experienced heads. We’ve played 13 games this year and lost just one, to Toomevara.”
He says injuries to two of the most established players, Hugh Maloney (who with Michael Heffernan was a member of Tipperary’s All-Ireland winning panel three years ago) and Richie Flannery required the introduction of younger players.
“It was out of necessity. We field about five minors. Only two of them would start and a couple more come on. There’s a couple of experienced heads too, a good mix that gelled. Kevin’s the link with ’95 and a couple of his team-mates weren’t even born when the club won that.”
Nenagh is a big population centre in the county. This has its advantages in terms of numbers and the local CBS – which won the colleges’ All-Ireland last year – but against this there is also the competition with rugby and soccer as well as the supposed lack of edge of a ‘town’ team when playing against rural opponents.
Nagle laughs at the stereotype. “Nenagh’s seen as this having this huge potential and there is the urban-rural rivalry because they’re trying to beat us every time.
“We’ve a population of about 7,000, which makes us probably the biggest hurling town in Tipperary with Thurles – I think we’ve more at the moment . . . but in the county a lot of the big population centres aren’t strong at hurling, like Cashel and Clonmel.”
He says the atmosphere ahead of the weekend took a while to take off but “we’ve only been in the final less than a week [their semi-final against Kildangan was replayed]. But driving through the town there are plenty of flags and colours. There seems to be great good will.
“We’ve put a huge emphasis on underage and juvenile development, because although there’s a perception that we’re very successful at underage, between our last two county final appearances in 1995 and 2006 we didn’t win any minor divisional titles – which was definitely a lull.”
Tucker remembers the surprising lack of follow-through from his own juvenile days and how so much promise went unfulfilled.
“Nenagh can be funny at times. I played juvenile and won nearly everything on the way up and we had a good nucleus of about 40 hurlers, but there were fabulous players at that age who never came through, lads who’d be dominating matches. Some stopped hurling and others turned out not to be good enough.”
His own county career included an All-Ireland under-21 medal with Tipp and a couple of seasons with the seniors, culminating in starting the Munster final in 1997, but that side of things never quite took off. He must have been disappointed?
“I was but I won’t go into that,” he says firmly, but his extended club career continues to give him great enjoyment.
“I really enjoy it still. My own brother Eddie said that he knew when it was time to go and he said to me: ‘I went when I knew. You’ll know yourself. Don’t let anyone else tell you. Trust me, you’ll know.’ It might be Sunday. It might not, but I’ll know.”
TALE OF THE TAPE: NENAGH ÉIRE ÓG
Hurling has been played in Nenagh since before the establishment of the GAA. Two clubs, the original Nenagh and Red Rovers, a rival from the Birr Road end of the town set up in 1926, amalgamated in 1947 to form St Mary’s. Within 10 years the name had been changed to Éire Óg and in 1957 the club won its first divisional title.
Roll of honour
The club won its only senior county title in 1995 and reached that year’s Munster final, losing to Sixmilebridge.
One of the proudest days for the club was September 3rd, 1989 when three Éire Óg players – John Heffernan, Conor O’Donovan and Michael Cleary – all started on the Tipperary team that ended the county’s 18-year All-Ireland drought.