Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Carrying the flame
Westport’s stand-in captain is maintaining a proud tradition
IF fate had dealt them a different hand, Joe Lawless would be leading Westport United into battle against Athenry in next Sunday’s Connacht Cup Final and Kevin ‘Kipper’ Joyce would be part of the supporting cast.
But an injury to Westport’s inspirational club captain has thrust Joyce into the spotlight as skipper, and presented the 29 year-old with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lift the famous old trophy.
Last week, as he contemplated the prospect of becoming the first United captain since Liam Halpin in 1987 to bring the Connacht Cup back to Westport, ‘Kipper’ couldn’t contain his excitement.
“You nearly get emotional thinking about it,” admitted the team’s left back. “It would be a huge personal achievement for me. This is the one trophy that this group is missing so it would be a dream come true to win it. It would make everything worthwhile.
“It’s a great honour for me to be captain because there’s such a great history and tradition in the club,” added Joyce.
“When I made by debut back in ‘98/’99 I was playing with the likes of ‘Bingo’ McKenna and Seán Jordan and I’ve played every season since, bar the year I was in Australia. It’s a really special club to play for.”
Westport’s historic run to the FAI Junior Cup title in 2005 underlined the special relationship that exists between the club and the local community.
They walked every step of that remarkable journey together, culminating in the fairytale win over Waterford Crystal in Kilkenny.
In hindsight, United’s captain can’t help but feel that there should have been more great days in the years that followed.
“We felt invincible after we won the Junior Cup,” he recalled.
“I remember a few weeks later we went out in the Super League and beat [Castlebar] Celtic 1-0.
“But eventually it just got too much and too tough for everybody to keep the commitment levels up. It was inevitable that we’d burn out.
“We could, and should, have tried to push on and win another one with the group we had at the time. We feel we’ve underperformed since 2005.
“I suppose with the Mayo league being played during the summer, and the cups following on from that, sometimes it feels like the season never ends. One just rolls into another.
“You just train Tuesday and Thursday and play a game every weekend. So Kieran Mulchrone and James Fahy deserve great credit for freshening things up and bringing in some new talent. The hunger is back again.”
Under the direction of Mulchrone and Fahy, Westport United have embarked on another barnstorming Cup run in recent months and the buzz is back around The Sports Park again.
The club has unfinished business when it comes to the Connacht Cup and Joyce makes no secret of the fact.
“In the last few years it’s been our number one aim because the majority of our squad have won every other club medal,” he said. “This would complete the set.
“This and the Super League would be our aim every season to be honest.
“Next Sunday is the first time this group has played in a Connacht Cup Final so hunger, desire and commitment won’t be an issue. This has been always been the one that got away.”
Westport’s Connacht Cup adventure has captured the imagination of the local community too and the fans have flocked to their games in exotic destinations like Galway, Cloonfad and Foxford along the way.
Joyce, who leases The Asgard Bar and Restaurant out The Quay, is well aware what next Sunday’s game means to the team’s ‘hard-core’ followers.
“There’s a lot of expectation. When I’m down the town I always end up talking about Westport Utd. The club is such a big part of the community.
“Our supporters are like a 12th man. I know it’s a cliché but it’s true. Against Ballinasloe in the semi-final, when we weren’t playing well, you could hear them trying to lift us. I’m getting butterflies just thinking about it,” he smiled.
“It’s like having a second family. We didn’t perform for a season or two after winning the FAI Junior Cup but the fans never deserted us. If anything, they helped to pick us up again.”
That infectious enthusiasm on the terraces has also spilled into the dressing-room in recent months.
The team train hard and prepare professionally, they play to win, and they socialise together. And, most importantly, they enjoy it.
“We have high standards within the group and that was the case under Padraig Burns and Kevin Cusack’s management too. They instilled that into us.
“We’re all a good bunch of friends,” he continued. “We always meet up in the pub together after a game and you’ll have the likes of Dave Hoban giving everybody stick. Even though he’s probably just after playing like Andy Carroll; missing ten chances and scoring one,” laughed Joyce.
Right now the countdown is on to the serious business of winning Westport’s seventh Connacht Cup title.
United are well aware of the threat that Athenry pose, having met them twice in recent seasons.
Joyce has a simple message for his comrades.
“We were slow out of the blocks in the semi-final so we know we have to get tuned in from the start on Sunday.
“We know we’ll have to perform 100 per cent to beat them.
“It’s all about the first ball, the first tackle. We have to forget about the occasion and play the game.”
Same as it ever was.
PATH TO THE FINAL
Third round Corrib Ranagers 3-1
Fourth round Cloonfad Utd 3-1
Fifth round Corrib Celtic 4-1
Quarter-Final S&F Utd 6-2
Semi-Final Ballinasloe Town 1-0
Name: Kevin Joyce
Honours won: 3 Mayo Super Leagues, 2 Mayo League Cups, 1 FAI Junior Cup, 1 Connacht Senior Cup, 1 Divisional League Cup.
Did you know? His party-piece is a rendition of Spancil Hill.
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