Meet the original Nellies: 'All we knew was basketball sure there were only two channels on TV'

Meet the original Nellies: 'All we knew was basketball sure there were only two channels on TV'

The Original Bru-Nellies... Sharon O'Neill, Angelene Myers, Carol Fitzgerald, Paula Wilkinson and Ann O'Halloran enjoying the cup semi-final. Picture: Larry Cummins

“ONCE a Nellie, always a Nellie.”

It’s as simple as that according to Singleton SuperValu Brunell chairwoman Ann O’Halloran. She’d know, as one of the original Nellies who have been at the heart of the northside club since its foundation 35 years ago. There have been ups and downs since of course, the natural lifecycle of any sporting organisation.

In the hey-day of hoops, Brunell were often competitive, reached a National Cup final and landed league honours but didn’t have the resources to fund a top-class American and were regularly thwarted by rivals and powerhouses Blarney. They dropped out of the National League for a spell but eventually returned to the top flight in 2011.

Their underage is booming now, and the club has five times as many members as it did in 1984. While they are underdogs against Liffey Celtics in Sunday’s cup final they will still travel en masse to Tallaght, as one of the best-supported clubs in the country.

According to Angelene Myers and Sharon O’Neill, two cornerstones of the team from the mid-eighties until their retirement seven years ago, Brunell wouldn’t be in such rude health if it wasn’t for Ann, whose brother Tim is the coach this season.

“Ann O’Halloran was treasurer for 17 years and is now chairperson,” explained Myers. “Another former player Michelle Tobin is the assistant coach. Carol Fitzgerald’s daughter is playing now so I’m sure she’ll be involved and I’m doing PRO, and did secretary before. There’s a lot of work in that but no one does the amount Ann O’Halloran does, she’s incredible.”

Angelene Myers and Sharon O'Neill played together, while their sons went on to link up at Neptune. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Angelene Myers and Sharon O'Neill played together, while their sons went on to link up at Neptune. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

“Her husband, Ken Foley, is involved in the nursery for nearly 20 years now,” added O’Neill. “He’s a dinger. The kids adore him. He’s fantastic with them and a great coach too. His brother Mark is Brunell’s assistant as well.”

As with any team involved in basketball, not every player in the squad is home-grown, or even Irish, but Brunell remain committed to nurturing their own and have reached numerous U18 and U20 deciders. Edel Thornton is currently shining in the collegiate game Stateside, while Megan O’Leary, sister of senior ace Danielle, is in Australia.

“Our underage has been very good for a while now,” said O’Halloran. “The majority of our players are coming through the nursery and as players go up through the ranks they deal with different coaches, which helps them understand different styles. We’ve Gary Walsh, the Neptune captain, in with Ken now at U8 because his daughter is playing.

“There’s always been a crossover Brunell and the men’s clubs on the northside. There’s a sense of family and being based in the Parochial Hall is a factor no doubt.

“There is a committee of seven people but the work that goes on behind the scenes goes much further. We’ve a brilliant sponsor in Tomás Singleton and he’s a great supporter at games too.

Jason Thornton presenting the Club of the Year Award to Brunell representatives, Ann O'Halloran and Patsy Fitzgibbon. Picture: Mike English
Jason Thornton presenting the Club of the Year Award to Brunell representatives, Ann O'Halloran and Patsy Fitzgibbon. Picture: Mike English

“Edel Thornton is a star now but her heart and soul is still in Brunell.”

After defeating Fr Mathews in a tense National Cup semi-final, having fallen short in the last four in 2017 and ‘18, there’s just one win away from glory. Yet O’Halloran is confident whatever the result they won’t abandon their core principle.

“It’s about the love of the game. Andrew Drumm is our president, an absolute driving force behind Brunell from the early days, but he just loves the game. He never believed winning was the be-all and end-all.”

Myers and O’Neill joke that if it was only about winning they’d have left the hardwood long before they retired. Blarney, especially, shattered their dreams over and over.

“There will never be a team like that again. Marla Maupin, the Forde sisters, Elaine Hurley, Tracey Nagle and more. All internationals. They were almost unbeatable,” reflected Myers.

Angelene Myers fires a three-pointer for Singleton SuperValu Brunell, in 2010. Picture. Jim Coughlan.
Angelene Myers fires a three-pointer for Singleton SuperValu Brunell, in 2010. Picture. Jim Coughlan.

“The first year we won the National League was in 1995 but we never won the cup. We did win the Top Four, which was a huge thing then, it was like the cup all over again played over a weekend.”

Husband and wife coaching duo Francis and Grace O’Sullivan were integral in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Grace was “like a mother to them”, shrewd on the sideline and adept at scouting players, though Francis had to take over for some games when she was pregnant with their sons Ciarán and Adrian.

They departed to re-establish the Ballincollig club, who are also in cup action this weekend, with Ciarán the Collig’s on-court general.

“Grace was fantastic,” said O’Neill. “And you see how well the O’Sullivans have done in Ballincollig. That’s a great success story.”

One of Brunell’s greatest victories in the golden era was over Naomh Mhuire when Paula Wilkinson’s and-one three-pointer forced over-time. Her daughter Tara Lynch is, inevitably, carrying on the basketball legacy.

While Brunell did get an American in to pull on the singlet occasionally, their core came from Cork, including the likes of Anne Carroll.

Schools basketball was where it all began, according to Myers and O’Neill, who still fondly recall their time in North Pres.

O’Neill: “Give me the schools basketball over anything else. I just love it. The rivalry and passion in all the games. We played St Vincent’s in an U16A final and it was the biggest crowd we ever played in front of.”

She was the MVP in that cracker at Neptune Stadium, which also featured the two Theresa Walshs, Mandy Chisholm and Julie Garvin.

Myers agrees it was one of their most enjoyable games.

“It was 28th of February, 1987. I remember walking down to Neptune from North Pres and they’d to actually stop the game before because there was so much noise and get the crowd to settle down. Ger Leahy was the coach.

“We were legends in school after, we got a half day and all!”

They didn’t ease off during the school holidays.

“All summer long we just played on the outdoor courts in North Mon. That’s all we did, that’s all we had.

“It wasn’t like we could stick on our phones or go onto Snapchat or whatever. We’d only two channels on TV. We played against the lads and they were taken very seriously. Winner stays on usually and the lads didn’t lay off because we were goals.

Sharon O'Neill in action for Brunell against Glanmire back in 2009. Picture: Larry Cummins
Sharon O'Neill in action for Brunell against Glanmire back in 2009. Picture: Larry Cummins

“It was so competitive,” agreed O’Neill. “I don’t see the same aggression in a lot of the kids now. We still get a few. Maybe it’s how you’re coached but it’s all about the passion. Basketball was our life. You’d spend the night after every game going over it again and again.”

Myers: “You could throw a basketball on the floor there and only one person might dive on it. That’s the player I want on my team.”

O’Neill still misses the feeling of giving your all on the court. “If you ask me what do I miss about basketball it’d be the physicality. Just ripping that basketball off somebody. There’s nothing like that in real life!”

Sharon O'Neill with her sons James and Scott Hannigan. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Sharon O'Neill with her sons James and Scott Hannigan. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

They have passed that grá for the game to their kids. O’Neill’s husband Jim was a fine player too and their twin boys Scott and James anchor the Neptune U20 crew that are on cup duty on Saturday. Her niece Eve is a rising star in Brunell's underage.

Angelene’s son Séan Jenkins used to play alongside them in Neptune as they hoovered up every underage cup on offer. An Irish international and MVP in three National Cup finals, he is now finishing out secondary school in America and aiming for a scholarship with a high-level college.

“Our kids are very lucky because they’ve made the most of their chances so far. They’ve a lot more medals than us already!”

Sean Jenkins with his mother Angelina Myers after winning two MVP awards for Neptune. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Sean Jenkins with his mother Angelina Myers after winning two MVP awards for Neptune. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Brunell is the priority this weekend though. A first National Cup at senior level would mean as much to the original Nellies as Danielle O’Leary, Amy Waters and co.

Myers recalled: “Danielle O’Leary was playing in our last season. She was only a baby then sure.”

O’Neill: “She’s a super player, just special. She was a pleasure to play with and a pleasure to watch.

“I can’t wait to see them in action now on Sunday.

“They’ve already made every one of us so proud.”

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