Declan Laffan’s long-shot underdogs primed for Dr Crokes challenge
Loughmore footballers bid to extend the light on what has been a fabulous year for Tipperary GAA
Loughmore-Castleiney manager Declan Laffan: has quietly built up one of the most impressive managerial resumes, guiding Loughmore to three football titles and one hurling title over the past four years with Pat McGrath. Photograph: inpho
It was after half past nine on Tuesday night when Declan Laffan left Loughmore-Castleiney’s training and headed for home, promising himself that he wouldn’t spend the entire night watching the US election results coming in on television.
In conversations with his relatives in Boston convinced him there probably wouldn’t be any shock and anyhow, he needed sleep. It’s yet another big week for Tipperary club. They had 45 players at training on Tuesday evening, with the juniors preparing for their final even as the senior football team plot a path to victory over the mighty Dr Crokes in Killarney this Sunday.
Along with Pat McGrath, Laffan has quietly built up one of the most impressive managerial resumes on the national landscape, guiding Loughmore to three football titles and one hurling title over the past four years. The club’s consistently high performances in both sports deepen the sense that Tipperary has displaced Cork and Dublin as the pre-eminent exponent of excellence in both hurling and football.
Now, Loughmore footballers bid to extend the light on what has been a fabulous year for Tipperary GAA. They met Crokes three years ago, also in Killarney and lost heavily. They feel more prepared this time even if they are perceived as stark outsiders.
It’s unlikely Laffan will invoke the shocking triumph of Donald Trump which occurred in the United States to illustrate his point but on some level, Loughmore are convinced the underdog can prevail. It is a view they are entitled to. As they began to feature regularly in Tipp’ finals, Loughmore were habitually described as a club whose members had learned to punch above their weight. But that overlooks the fact this team expects to be in county finals and push hard in both hurling and football, unique in that they prioritise neither.
“That’s probably fair,” Laffan says. “Generally, the hurling championship is finished sooner in Tipp as a rule because the Munster football comes a week later. Our goal at the start of every year is probably to win the hurling and if things are going well then the chances in the football will probably increase. But I would say, we have been gone out of the hurling for six weeks and the transformation in the quality of our football has been phenomenal.
“We have always known it was in there. We just haven’t played enough of it. It is good enough to get us over maybe 13 of the senior teams but the teams like Moyle Rovers and Clonmel: you need to be kicking plenty of football to be turning those teams over.”
At least 12 senior players start on both the hurling and football teams for the club. Balancing a commitment and progression in both games can by a tricky business. Loughmore-Castleiney crashed out of this year’s hurling championship amid high controversy: they were trailing Séamus Callanan and Drom-and-Inch by a point but were closing out the game in dominant fashion when the referee erroneously whistled for full-time with 30 minutes played, eliminating the four minutes of time added on.
Calls for an appeal fell on deaf ears, with Laffan among those speaking out on the issue. The club had no choice but to concentrate on football and the manner of their exit informed their desire in that competition.
“Definitely. Lads were very hurt over what happened. We felt we were badly treated. There was actually no rule because technically the referee played 30 minutes and a few seconds. We were all over them at the time. I am of the opinion – and not everyone will agree with me – is that we would have got to a county hurling final. I’m not saying we would have won it because Sarsfields are a very difficult team to beat in Tipperary. But I do think we would have got there. So that was hard to take and the boys used it as a spur, definitely.”
Last year was a bleak year for the club, revolving around the death of Eddie Connolly, the former Tipp and Loughmore duel player who was diagnosed with a brain tumour during the club’s ultimately successful push for a hurling and football double in 2013.
Connolly felt ill in the latter stages of the team’s quarter-final hurling win over Borrisoleigh and had surgery a week later. Connolly’s courageous and dauntless response to the diagnosis became a key element of Loughmore’s season. Incredibly, his team-mate Noel McGrath, was diagnosed with testicular cancer the following April. McGrath made a recovery and was, of course, orchestrator in Tipp’s All-Ireland winning hurling surge this summer.
But Eddie Connolly succumbed to his illness at the age of 29 last September and his absence will be keenly felt for a long time.
“We are very close,” Laffan say. “And last year was a tough year. Some guys would probably say that we are clannish. I would describe it differently. There is a big family element, yes. There are a lot of McGraths and relations . On the day of the county final, numbers four to 14 were related to each other in some way. And the corner forward was related to some of the others. So they are a unique bunch, really.
Sometimes I notice other teams after games, their dressingroom is empty after 10 minutes. You never see that in Loughmore. They just sit around . . . talking shite for half an hour. They are very close and there is something different about them. Nothing fell for us last year. We probably needed to finish early because of everything that happened. And we had gone for two and a half years without a break.”
Much of this summer involved gauging and guessing when the local championship might get up and running. A prolonged run for Tipp in the hurling championship was expected but the emergence of the county football team as All-Ireland semi-final material was the stunning moment of this year’s championship. It was a break-on-through inspiration for counties who have been limited by previous experience into believing that they are locked into a system and cycle of inevitable defeat.
And it was historical: a first appearance in the final four in 81 years. Whether it was a chimera or the beginning of Tipperary as a heavyweight dual county remains to be seen. There was minor controversy within the county when the football final between Loughmore and Moyle Rovers was scheduled for Cashel on the same afternoon when Thurles Sarsfields, the county hurling champions, faced Ballygunner in the Munster club championship in Semple Stadium, the premier venue in the county.
There is no doubt which game is prioritised. Loughmore-Castleiney have been championing both games for decades and Laffan believes it is possible for Tipp to emulate this at intercounty level.
“I actually think they can. I would be of the opinion that there are probably a lot more footballers that Liam [Kearns, Tipperary’s senior football manager] would like to get in to his panel. It is just to get them involved. There are obviously a certain few that are on the hurling that would be on the football but you can’t blame a guy who has an All-Ireland hurling medal in his pocket for not walking away from that and in this day and age it is simply not realistic to do both at intercounty age. I could name 10 players straight off that I think would be a huge addition to that panel. And I think it can go places.”
Loughmore’s tradition is sufficiently strong that they are guaranteed to feature in the latter stages of the football competition. But they need to be on their game when they come up against the standard bearers like Clonmel Commericals (whom they beat in this year’s semi-final) and Moyle Rovers.
“And we went through 10 or 12 years periods without winning anything. This team may have more natural footballers than a lot of teams that went before them so they are probably able to switch back into football more easily.”
Still, can they realistically plan to topple a Killarney team which has consistently dominated the Kerry scene? Dr Crokes comfortably closed in on their fifth title in seven seasons by beating Kenmare in mid-October. Colm Cooper contributed an ominous 0-7 to the cause.
When the clubs met in the semi-final three years ago, it finished 3-16 to 1-5. That score line has helped to formulate the bookmaker’s odds, which places the Tipperary men at 8/1. Laffan has, of course, devised a plan to try and cope with Cooper. “But if you over compensate on one player you will get hurt elsewhere,” he points out.
“We have a system of play in which we pretty much play a sweeper all the time. A lot of teams have decided to push up and mark us and that suits us even better because it leaves us five on five up front. I don’t mind if a team wants to push up. But we do have a system of play and I think we have really refined it over the last six weeks.
“Our performance against Clonmel was outstanding for its work rate and effort. I just happened to be speaking to the guy who refereed it at the weekend and he couldn’t get over it as a game of football and the fitness level. I think we have a great shot this time.
“I would feel there are 12 of the team who played in 2013 starting again. That was a young team. So there are a lot of guys there hitting their prime. I know we are long-shot underdogs but that will suit us fine.”