St Thomas’s band of brothers line out on the final frontier
Galway’s latest contenders for the club All-Ireland have risen through the ranks together to the threshold of glory
Bernard Burke who was man of the match for St Thomas’ against Loughgiel in the All-Ireland club semi-final. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Of the surprises that popped out of last month’s AIB All-Ireland club hurling semi-finals the less shocking concerned the defeat of champions Loughgiel by Galway standard bearers St Thomas’s.
This was partly because defending All-Ireland club titles is as arduous, and frequently as hypothermic, as polar exploration and the Ulster side had been on the road for a while – this was their third successive national campaign – but also because Thomas’s are themselves an archetype, a young team with momentum and learning fast.
“We knew that the game would bring them on, playing at that level,” says Loughgiel manager PJ O’Mullan. “We thought it would work the same way for us but we just weren’t as fresh and didn’t take early chances. Then there was a 10-minute period after half-time when everything they hit went over the bar (eight in succession).
“As a club they’re inexperienced but they’ve four or five fellas who have good experience at national level. They’re a very young, fit and skilful team with good players in a lot of the right places. They’re very hard working all over the field.”
The question of inexperience has two answers. O’Mullan is correct that at an individual level, Thomas’s field three players who appeared for Galway in last autumn’s All-Ireland final plus others who have known big days with the county during their under-age careers.
But former Galway manager Conor Hayes, himself a winner of a club All-Ireland with Kiltormer 21 years ago, makes a further point.
“Galway teams’ record gives them a tradition, which can be intimidating for other clubs.”
That tradition is built on the county’s record number of both All-Ireland club titles and winning clubs. Should St Thomas’s raise the Tommy Moore Cup tomorrow, they’ll be the seventh club from Galway to become champions.
Such an outcome would be the conclusion to a remarkable narrative. The club was founded in 1968, an amalgamation of the Kilchreest, Peterswell and Castledaly sister parishes, but this particular story starts with manager John Burke and a group of players he led to the 2002 under-12 county title.
From then on, maturing with the reliable precision of triple ‘A’ bonds, the age group went on to add titles at under-16 in 2006, minor two years later, under-21 in 2011 and finally the 2012 senior title.
Nine of that under-12 team are likely starters tomorrow and it would be 10 but for a long-term hip injury to David Cooney. Fourteen of the side are panellists. Tomorrow would be a crowning achievement for Burke, who has six sons on the panel, including All Star David as well as nephew, Bernard, man of the match in the semi-final replay in Clones. His house has also been described as the spiritual home of the team, where most of the panel on occasion gather for cups of tea and chat.
Close-knit doesn’t do it justice. At one stage in Clones it was calculated that 13 of the St Thomas players on the field came from just four houses.
Assisted by the coaching input of the vastly experienced Dinny Cahill, the team has picked up momentum from a county final that not everyone fancied them to win through the two matches against Loughgiel.
Hayes says that he was concerned that the team might have over-dwelled on how an apparently unassailable extra-time lead had been magicked away by Liam Watson’s late 1-1.
“I was suspicious of them going into the replay in case they’d take the wrong lessons from the first match,” he says, “but listening to John Burke, I was impressed. He said that the team was in a position they mightn’t be in again and they should just give it everything. To leave aside the ‘we’re too young and inexperienced and should have won it the first day’ – ‘we’re in a replay and won’t be found wanting’.
“St Thomas’s have learned fast and are still learning; they’ve no great hang-ups,” he adds but Hayes has no ‘Eureka’ theories as to why Galway clubs are such a force in the championship.
“It’s hard to know. Once out of Galway, clubs seem to thrive. Maybe it’s the lack of a provincial championship, which means they go into the All-Ireland stages fresher although there’s a big break for all teams before that stage.”
“You wonder all sorts of things: are the standards slipping in other counties?”
Galway have notoriously struggled to translate an under-age record, equal in the last 20 years to only Kilkenny’s, into senior All-Irelands. But perhaps the wide spread of talented players in the county has been expressing itself through the club championship.
Whereas Hayes accepts that this might benefit the quality of hurlers he’s not convinced that the two worlds bear much relevance to each other.
“I don’t think there’s any great connection between the club championships and inter-county hurling. It’s not as demanding on the day of a final as it would be playing in September. At county level there are generally no weak links.”
In his role as a local radio pundit, Hayes says that he had been sceptical about the constant talk of St Thomas’s potential.
“I’ve always said that a team can only be in transition for so long. For a while we’ve been hearing that Thomas’s are a coming team and I felt it was time for them to arrive.”
This weekend, they’re nearly there.