DARKNESS was falling on Saturday evening when The Neale’s towering midfielder John Varley clambered up the steps and became the first captain from the South Mayo club to ever lift the famous Pete McDonnell Cup.
Both Varley (who had been forced to leave the fray on two separate occasions with a knee injury) and The Neale GAA club itself had triumphed over adversity to make history.
Tears flowed freely among their long-suffering supporters as the 29 year-old from Creevagh in Cong addressed the crowd who stood on the field below him.
Among them were people like Ray McHugh, The Neale’s captain in 1983 when they lost a Junior Final replay to Achill, and team-mates, Dermot Keane and Pat McGrath.
Two sons of Ray and Pat, Killian and Padraic, were the wing-backs last Saturday evening while Dermot coached the likes of the Hughes and Caseys during their time in The Neale National School.
This victory has been decades in the making,
“110 years of football, six county finals, and we’ve finally done it,” declared John Varley and the crowd of men, women and children roared their approval. “The lads were unbelievable, what they’ve done all year they showed again today on the pitch.
“They put it in time, and time, and time again. They never gave up and never dropped the heads.
“It’s our day at last,” he added.
“Lads, you’re going to go a long way in life. You’re going to do a lot of things and see a lot of places. But you will never, ever forget this day. Never.”
FULL-BACK Donal Hughes began his 19th season playing junior with The Neale at the start of this year.
He has soldiered with his friends, and family, through good times and bad as one year rolled into the next.
There were setbacks on the pitch, like losing the 2000 and 2008 County Junior Finals to Killala.
Tragedy struck off the field too, like the tragic deaths of Donal’s brother, Enda, his dear friend, Kevin Kennedy, and John Browne and Áine O’Malley within fourteen months of each other between late 2007 and early 2009. Club President, Paddy McTigue, was also laid to rest earlier this month.
“It’s a proud day for me personally, and for the club,” remarked the soft-spoken native of Caherduff.
“There’s been a black cloud over our club for the last few years. A lot of people passed away that shouldn’t have. This club, and these supporters, stood by us through all those times. We’re just delighted today to give this back to them.
“We didn’t drop the heads, we just kept going, kept digging, kept fighting. And today we got our reward.”
Donal’s brother, Eoin, produced an inspirational performance at midfield when the chips were down last Saturday evening. He also reflected on The Neale’s journey from nearly men to county champions.
“It means an awful lot to us. Over the last 100 years some great players have come through the club. Kevin Kennedy, Padraic Maye, Eddie Gibbons, the O’Hallorans. . they put in great effort but never won any [county] medals.
“This year we got it together. We took the beating from Islandeady in the semi-final last year on the chin, regrouped, and everybody pulled together on the panel. There were no individuals, just great passion.”
The brothers, who were joined by their sibling, Kieran, in The Neale squad again this season, both paid tribute to the role played by their manager, Donal ‘Mossy’ Costello, a native of Ballinrobe, in their victory.
“We approached him to manage us after he moved to The Neale,” smiled Donal. “He had new ideas, new selectors, and a new way of thinking. And young players came through the ranks too so it was a combination of everything.
“We’ve been coming down here for a long time with different teams and never won a county title,” he continued. “We never got the bit of luck. We did today.”
THE Neale are now away to Ballinasloe in the Connacht Junior Club Championship semi-final on Sunday next at 2.30pm.