FINAL FLASHBACK Tooreen’s Conor Henry lifts the TJ Tyrell Cup with his team-mates after last year's Mayo Senior Hurling Championship Final. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Champions Tooreen will take on Castlebar Mitchels in Sunday’s novel County Hurling Final
THE year was 2002 and the city was Perth.
Two young men from Mayo and Laois lined out on the Michael Cusack’s team in the local championship in the Australian city.
The twists and turns of life are strange and Paul Hunt and Denis Egan could never have imagined back then that they would be managers of opposing teams in a Mayo senior hurling final 17 years later.
In a football-mad county like Mayo (yes, I am one of those breed too!), my heart still flutters in a special way on county hurling final day.
I know it is a long way from Tipperary and Slievenamon and Lovely Molly the Rose of Mooncoin down Kilkenny way.
It is a fair journey too to the Banks of the Lee and the glorious land of Wexford and Boolavogue and the Offaly Rovers who warmed our hearts in the 1980s and 90s.
Our Galway hurling neighbours have had their days too, especially in the 1980s when we were there with them every step of the way. And who cannot be stirred by the men from the Glens of Antrim and that fair county in the northeast who reached the All-Ireland Final in 1989 against all the odds.
And how about the men from Clare who broke the Biddy Early spell and those gallant lads from Waterford who lit up so many summers down south but fell short of claiming the Liam McCarthy Cup or Limerick last year bridging a gap going back to 1973.
Hurling stirs the soul in a special way and hurling final days in Mayo and Roscommon and Laois, Westmeath and Kerry hold the same appeal as they do in the ‘big’ counties. There is a unique bond between hurling aficionados that crosses county borders and unites us in a spiritual way.
Longford singer Dermot Hegarty topped the Irish charts back the years with a rousing song called ‘21 Years is a Mighty Long Time’. Castlebar Mitchels can concur with that. It is exactly that length of time since they last contested a Mayo senior hurling final in 1998.
Their one point victory over Ballyhaunis in the semi-final a few weeks ago was unexpected but Tooreen manager Paul Hunt, who donned the blue and white jersey for several seasons, is hoping to guide his side to three-in-a-row.
“After all the years of Ballyhaunis domination, it is hard to believe we are now going for three in a row. We were expecting another showdown with Ballyhaunis but Castlebar caused a fair upset in the semi-final,” he said.
“It will be a new experience for this team playing a county final in MacHale Park. Our games with Ballyhaunis have switched between our local pitches every second year. We had a comfortable win over Castlebar when we played them in the last round but that will count for nothing on Sunday.”
Paul will be joined on the sideline by Brian Delaney, Tommy Feeney and Galway native Ray Larkin on Sunday. Tooreen has been strengthened immeasurable by the return of Kenny Feeney and Seán Regan who have recovered from injuries.
They will once again be captained by the inspirational Stephen Coyne who is now well settled back in his home area after spending a few years in Australia. Stephen Leneghan is back on goalkeeping duties while Gary Nolan, Michael Morley, John Cassidy, Conor Henry and David Kenny will be expected to take up defensive roles.
Danny Huane, who starred in Tooreen’s U-21 win over Westport last week, is likely to be partnered by Conor English at midfield.
Tooreen can boast an impressive attack featuring Seán Kenny, Fergal Boland, Seán Regan, Shane Boland, Kenny Feeney and Eoin Delaney with plenty of emerging talent like Liam Lavin and Oisín Greally on the bench.
In November 2017, Tooreen made a massive breakthrough for Mayo hurling when they defeated Ballinderreen of Galway in the Connacht Intermediate Final, the first Mayo team to win this title. Two months later, they put in a gallant display against Ballyragget of Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final down in Ennis.
Last November, they turned in another majestic display in the Connacht Final before losing out to eventual All-Ireland champions, Oranmore-Maree, on a scoreline of 1-20 to 1-15 over in Athleague, despite having played much of the second have when reduced to 13 players.
“The last two years have been amazing for Tooreen,” says Paul Hunt. “Winning a Connacht title and playing a Kilkenny team in an All Ireland semi-final was special. Pushing Oranmore-Maree all the way to the wire last year was another tremendous achievement. Mayo teams have been well able to compete at this level. Ballyhaunis were unlucky not to secure a Connacht title in recent years.
“We have played challenge games against teams from Galway, Westmeath and Offaly in recent weeks in preparation for the county final. We are most certainly not taking anything for granted ahead of the Castlebar game. It is all on the day as has been proven so many times down through the years.”
Borris-in-Ossory native Denis Egan played with his home club in Laois until he was 34. His assignment to Mayo saw him take up duties with Castlebar Mitchels hurling team with whom he lined out for six years.
He took over the managerial reins at the start of this year and, along with Eoin Shaughnessy, John Waldron and Ray Coy, has helped steer them to the county final.
“It will be a huge day for us all, players, mentors, families, all associated with the club and all in the background.
“We are hoping to advance to the stage where we can attain a level of consistency Tooreen and Ballyhaunis have had for years. That has to be our main focus. Our chairman, Tony Stakelum (a native of Tipperary) is the heartbeat of the club and has been so supportive all along.
“We had eight players on the Mayo panel in the early stages of the year and still had six towards the end of that campaign. Mayo hurling manager Derek Walsh has been very supportive of our efforts here in Castlebar.
“Corey Scahill, James Gallagher and Seán Mulroy featured on a regular basis on the county team with our goalie Martin Parsons also getting a call-up.”
Denis and the Castlebar management squad will be hoping for another solid display from their players on Sunday.
Padraig O’Flynn, Corey Scahill, Conor Murray, Shane Nugent, Bernard Kennedy, Joe Butler, James Lowe, James Gallagher, Tony Sweeney, Liam Mullins and Alan Gavin were well to the fore against Ballyhaunis in the semi-final.
Denis Egan, who was down in Portlaoise on Sunday cheering on Borris-Kilcotton as they overcame Clough-Ballacolla to reach the Laois senior hurling final, is hoping that Castlebar can rise to the occasion again.
“Tooreen are a fine side and have shown that over the last two years with back-to-back wins in Mayo and claiming a Connacht title as well. “We have the same love for hurling among our fraternity in Castlebar. We want our lads to deliver a top performance and we’ll see what happens on the day.”
Mayo SHC Final
Castlebar Mitchels v Tooreen
Sunday, October 13
MacHale Park at 2.30pm
Referee: M Herr (Crossmolina)