Christy O'Connor: Rural hurling clubs have to take their chance when it comes

Small numbers mean teams like St Thomas must maximise their opportunities when the right group of hurlers emerges
Christy O'Connor: Rural hurling clubs have to take their chance when it comes

While the Glen remain a top hurling club, they don't dominate like they once did in tandem with Blackrock and St Finbarr's. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

TEN days before the 2013 All-Ireland club hurling final, Enda Tannian, St Thomas’ most experienced player at that time, spoke about the impact John Burke and his six sons had on driving the club to the brink of All-Ireland glory.

That team was dominated by family connections, but all the arteries and veins of the parish’s blood-flow were naturally pumped in the direction of the Burkes. Because they were – and still are - the heart of St Thomas’.

“If you ask me why St Thomas’ have got this far, it’s plain and simple — John and Paula Burke,” Tannian said. “If John and Paula moved to Oranmore after they got married and had their family there, it might be Oranmore that everyone would be talking about now.”

John Burke, from Castledaly, married Paula Carr, from Oranmore, in 1983. John had played in an All-Ireland minor final in 1981 but Paula was from hurling stock too and played camogie with Galway.

Kenneth was born in 1984, followed by Deirdre, Seán, David, Cathal, Darragh and Eanna.

The family grew up in John’s homeplace in Castleboy. Eleven years separate Kenneth and Eanna but all the family were bound together by the game, and the club.

Pulling from just over 200 houses in a small area in south Galway, the club profited from a gifted generation of players, families of hurlers, lifelong friends. They were blessed by a freakish cycle of nature, with the Burke’s providing the glorious bounty.

When St Thomas’ won that 2013 All-Ireland, the Burkes contributed six of the starting team and one sub (five brothers and two cousins).

The side was managed by John Burke. Six years later, Burke completed a remarkable double when managing Oranmore to the 2019 All-Ireland Intermediate final, defeating Charleville in the final.

The Burkes always had close connections to Oranmore through their mother but that point Tannian raised in 2013 was even more relevant again after the impact John made to the club in 2018-’19.

If John and Paula Burke had settled in Oranmore after getting married, would Oranmore have won an All-Ireland club senior title, and be still contesting All-Ireland senior semi-finals?

The most remarkable aspect of St Thomas’ success is how they have continued to profit from such a golden generation. When they won a fourth successive Galway senior title in December, they joined an exclusive club along with Castlegar in the late 1930s and Turloughmore in the early 1960s to complete four-in-a-row.

St Thomas' Conor Cooney controls a loose ball against Clarinbridge in the Galway championship. Next up is an All-Ireland semi-final. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
St Thomas' Conor Cooney controls a loose ball against Clarinbridge in the Galway championship. Next up is an All-Ireland semi-final. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

Great clubs followed but Thomas’s have become the dominant force since winning their first title in 2012. And the Burkes have remained at the heart of that success - Kenneth Burke is now the manager.

Their age profile was really good in 2013, when 25 of that squad were U23, with eight of the team which featured in the 2013 All-Ireland final starting the Galway final in December. Yet St Thomas’ have continually been able to find one or two new players every year to sustain their incredible success.

That is the secret of any successful club but it’s all the harder again to maintain when the main players and leaders eventually walk away. Portumna are the most successful hurling club in Galway, especially in a national context, because they won four All-Ireland club titles.

Yet they were also a standout example of a club maximising that talent, because they knew that once the feast was over, that a famine was coming.

After three defeats in their group by an aggregate margin of 63 points in 2020, Portumna were demoted to senior B in Galway. They reached a preliminary quarter-final in 2021 but the days of chasing All-Ireland titles are long gone.

It’s a fate that befalls so many great clubs – the glory days last so long but when they pass, the bad times seem to linger longer than anyone in those clubs could have ever imagined they would.

It’s more easily accepted in rural clubs because of the family generation game and decreasing numbers but it’s harder to reconcile in stronger clubs, especially those which retain huge numbers. On the other hand, it’s not all about numbers either – if it was, the huge clubs would be hoovering up everything.

DOMINANCE

New clubs have emerged. New traditions have been established. After absolutely dominating the Cork senior hurling championship for most of its history, the big three – Blackrock, Glen Rovers and St Finbarr’s – have only won six of the last 25 senior titles. The Barrs have now gone almost 30 years without a senior hurling title.

It’s always about the future but that future is harder to shape when the numbers dwindle. Probably the greatest club story in 2021 was Loughmore-Castleiney’s dual success in both codes. But they also know that once this golden generation goes, that hard times are coming.

“In 10 years’ time, I don’t think Loughmore will be senior,” said Pat Cullen, a stalwart in the club, a few weeks back. “We’re weak at juvenile. We’d have 11 or 12 at some ages, and that’s with a couple of girls. Until the McGraths start breeding, and a few other lads, I don’t know…”

The generation game is different now to what it was in the past, especially with smaller families. It often takes a generation, or far longer, for the good times to roll again after they have ended.

Yet when that base and culture is at least set down, and grown and maintained from continuously tilling the underage soil, journeying back to the glory days is always possible.

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