Loughmore-Castleiney's loaves and fishes miracle
By John Harrington
Outpourings of emotion are common at this time of the year as county championships are won and lost, but there was still something a little bit spine-tingling about the reaction to Loughmore-Castleiney’s Tipperary SHC Final replay victory over Thurles Sarsfields yesterday.
Players, managers, and supporters alike exploded with joy as the rural Mid-Tipperary club completed a remarkable double of county hurling and football titles after 17 consecutive weekends of playing matches.
Both county finals were won by a point, the same margin that Loughmore-Castleiney lost them by in 2020.
Noel McGrath’s emotional devastation after his team lost that 2020 Hurling final to Kiladangan after conceding last-gasp extra-time goal lived long in the memory.
So, to see him celebrate yesterday’s redemptive victory with such joy did the heart some good. According to Loughmore-Castleiney club chairperson, Brendan Meagher, it’s a joy everyone in the community is sharing in.
“The emotion was just for everybody,” he told GAA.ie “Anybody who was there saw how the players, management, the spectators, it was just everybody together, it was just pure magic. It wasn't alone for the players or management, it was everybody together.
“I've been lucky enough to be following these players since they were U-8, U-10, and U-12 and we have just had the most fantastic journey with them. I think central to it all is, and I sincerely say this, they're genuinely a lovely bunch of lads.
“They really are examples of what the GAA is about and the enjoyment they get from it and the friendships they've made and we've all made through it.
“It was just a real, real culmination of all of those factors together in terms of the emotion and it still hasn't fully sunk in.”
Loughmore-Castleiney’s Tipperary double, their second in eight years, is a real loaves and fishes sporting miracle.
Their hurling team first choice XV is virtually identical to their football team first choice XV so yesterday’s County Final replay win was a 17th match in as many weeks for most of their players.
Needs must. The population of their parish is little over 1,000, so Loughmore-Castleiney have always had to make the most of what they have.
“Absolutely,” says Meagher. “One of the important factors is that we need everybody. So when you go down to the field training, be it football or hurling, you know you're needed. Even if you're not brought on, you're needed.
“It does give you that little lift as a player. To know that you're needed in this group of players and you have a role to play.
“They've spoken a lot over the years, especially this year, about the panel. We've brought in subs every day to do different jobs and it wasn't just to get a score, it was to chase and harry and work. It's really just about a whole group of players together.”
Despite the small population of their parish, it’s a testament to the vibrant culture within the club that they were able to field three adult hurling and football teams this year.
Not only that, their third team won the Mid-Tipperary Junior C Hurling Championship last month and had a panel of more than 30 players.
“It was brought up at an AGM two years ago about putting in a Junior C team and the only concern we had about it was whether we'd have enough players,” says Meagher. “Pat Cullen, a stalwart of Loughmore-Castleiney, managed it and put a lot of work into it.
“He brought back a lot of lads who had retired and they literally just loved it. They loved being back involved. I was in Templetuohy the night we won the Mid Final and it was such a happy group of players.
“One man said to me I didn't come training enough when I was a young lad, but now I'm loving it and can't wait to get down training.
“These are people now who are hugely committed now again. The circle has gone full-tilt again.”
Loughmore-Castleiney are as well-organised off the pitch as they are on it. For the past number of years they’ve raised considerable funds to develop their club grounds with the addition of a hurling-wall and Astro-turf training area.
Their local community has been hugely supportive of all fund-raising initiatives and plans for further developments are already in place.
“We're lucky enough that we developed a five-year plan and most of the people who were involved in it came from the juvenile club so these were people with an eye to the future so it made the buy-in to the five-year plan much, much easier,” says Meagher.
“Once everybody does a little, nobody has to do a lot and that gives a real sense of community too. It is what it's about, that sense of being together for the same cause and having a bit of craic too.
“I went up picking stones there one day in the field and I think we had something like 35 people who volunteered their time. Small things like that just make a difference and give you the encouragement to stay going.
“We have a huge Astro-turf now and the lights will be going on it this week and the next stage is that we have to redevelop the actual pitch itself. We have to do a walkway around it and lights and stuff like that.
"All these jobs are very expensive and we have a very small base from which to draw our money.
“The parish I think only has population of between 1000 and 1100 from the youngest to the oldest. And I think we've already over €300,000 spent and we're not much in debt. That's a huge, huge achievement by our finance committee.
“We've people on the finance committee who are expert in that field and they're giving us top-class guidance from a financial point of view.”
It’s fair to say that Loughmore-Castleiney are popular double-champions in Tipperary this year for a couple of reasons.
Losing both Finals last year made it easy for neutrals to root for them this year, and there’s also a lot of admiration in the county for how they go about their business as a club and are such a tight-knit community who make the most of what they have.
Meagher is aware they’ve gotten a lot of support from outside the parish this year, but knows too that they’ll have a target on their backs in 2022.
“I'd always urge caution about popularity,” he says. “ Popularity is a very short-lived thing and we were very aware this year that we were popular winners. But come the first of next January, we will be the ones that people will be trying to knock off the pedestal.
“We do realise that there was a lot of good-will out there towards us. I've been getting a lot of text messages in the week leading up to both matches and the only word I'm sending back to everyone now is thanks, thanks, thanks.
“They're all sincere and genuine, but, at the same token, I know a lot of clubs will be planning their training regime coming up to Christmas and the one team they'll want to knock off their pedestal will be Loughmore-Castleiney.
“We're delighted to be in that position, but we're well aware that all these teams will be gunning for us next year in the healthiest possible manner.
“One thing I really want to do is pay a compliment to both Clonmel Commercials and Thurles Sarsfields. I don't think there was a dirty stroke in either of those matches. And I think that is a highlight of those county finals for us as well.”
The adventure still isn’t over for Loughmore-Castleiney.
On Sunday they play Clare champions Éire Óg Ennis in the AIB Munster SFC Quarter-Final, then the following weekend its Waterford champions Ballygunner in the AIB Munster SHC semi-final.
You’d wonder just how much they have left in the tank for those matches after playing 17 weekends in a row in Tipperary, but such is the character in their team that you’d be foolish to write them off.
“Look, even if it comes to a stage someday where they literally collapse with exhaustion on the field, every supporter will know they have given everything,” says Meagher.
“I know for the younger players coming in, they have bought into that ethos that you just keep going until there is nothing left.
“And if there's nothing left in the tank then they take you off and there's no disgrace in that. You buy into that, it's an automatic buy-in.
“We've been sometimes disappointed for that team in terms of the results, but we were never, every once disappointed in them. They have always delivered as much as they can deliver and it's what we've come to expect of them.”