Athenry's not so local hero

 

The knock came at tea-time. Pat Nally opened his door and there was P J Molloy, still raven-haired and fit 10 years after his old glory days in maroon, hands dug deep in his pocket and cheeks flushed with the frost. Will you come in with us, he asked, straight to the point. Athenry, he said, needed someone fresh.

"I knew P J well but right then I wondered what in the name of God he was asking me to do. But I went for it and the rest is history."

History. Browse through any long-standing GAA man's career and little bits of it begin to overlap. On St Patrick's Day, Nally will manage Athenry, leading them out on to Croke Park for their second All-Ireland club final in three years. Many moons ago, he found himself on the same turf on the same day. Different colours though. In 1982, Nally was a football man and enjoying an improbable adventure with his home club in Mayo. Garrymore was a parish club which in most years quietly kicked ball in a sort of Bermuda triangle between Ballindine, Claremorris and Milltown.

But, as happens in every club once every few generations, a bunch of naturals grew up at the same time. Billy Fitzpatrick, Danny Dolan, Pat Dixon; all headline names in Mayo back then. And on they strode until the club final, a game that is rarely dwelt on now.

"We were annihilated by Nemo Rangers. A brilliant Rangers team, so it was. And Garrymore won the county title again the following summer, but haven't come out since."

So it goes. Clubs bloom, reach the storied heights and then one day the legs feel a bit heavy and next thing the talk is of the old days. Pat Nally, a garda, was moved to Athenry and coached a bit of under-age football and found his favourite local and acquired a set of golf clubs and managed to get his handicap down to 11.

Athenry was a fine place to bring up a family and even though he had hurled a bit with St Jarlath's and ran briefly with the hurlers of Mayo, Nally was happy to watch the Galway club from behind the wire. Then Molloy came whistling . . .

The strange thing about Athenry is that even though it's only a stone's throw from Galway's sprawl, it has retained the serenity and unhurried rhythm of most small Irish towns. Soon, that will change; even now, it's evolving into a satellite town. But it's hard to see the hurling being eroded.

When Nally took over as trainer in 1996, Athenry won a Galway title under Molloy and a year later marched on to the club All-Ireland and the senior league. Molloy joined Cyril Farrell with Galway then and Nally stepped up and managed as the club took intermediate and senior titles, a feat that eluded even Sarsfields. Last year, they were champions again and now they are on the verge of another All-Ireland.

"As soon as I moved here, it was very apparent that the people were simply mad about the game. The town is very much seen as the heartland of Galway hurling. And even though there is a very towny feel about here, the team is made up of a few families when you look at it. The Feeneys, the Morans, the Higgins', the Cloonans, the Keoghs. That's a very country thing.

"And I heard Jarlath Cloonan on the radio the other day talking about these lads having pucked around in an orchard together as young fellas. There is a strong local identity, a real club bond, which is something, certainly, that has been stressed since my time here."

When Nally took his first session, he could either have stood in awe at the talent of the hurlers or taken things by the scruff of the neck. Discipline has always been his mantra when it comes to sport. This season, Athenry played 50 games and met for 100 training sessions. He believes devoutly in effort.

"These lads have astounded me with their dedication and it's a marvellous feeling to be at this stage. We are playing a great St Joseph's team and while much has been made about the way we lost to them last year, it doesn't really matter. It wasn't St Joseph's doing, it was officialdom that cost us that point. And we had chances enough to win it.

"No, I'm thrilled to be at this stage and especially for our captain, Joe Rabbitte. Joe put his soul in this club. He's a man that has been vilified over the years but he is the most honest fella I've ever met. And a brilliant hurler. He is what this club is all about."

And for Pat Nally?

"You know, I've been getting good wishes cards from lots of old names. Even one from a fella I kicked football with in the 60s. It just brings home the fact that people have a loyalty to time spent with their clubs. And I hope and believe that in the years to come, that will remain true for the lads who play in this match."