By Damian Dolan
Lancashire hurling manager Stan Murray-Hession has played down his side’s chances going into the Lory Meagher Cup – a competition the county reached the final of last year only to lose out to a late Sligo goal.
Murray-Hession’s charges open this year’s campaign back at Old Bedians – for what will be just their fourth championship outing at their Manchester home – with Leitrim the visitors on Saturday.
With away trips to Fermanagh and Cavan to follow, getting off to a good start at home is imperative.
But the 11-week gap since the end of a league campaign which saw Lancashire relegated back down to Div 3B, coupled with injuries, a lack of match practice and the geographical spread of its players, spanning York, Newcastle, Chester, Manchester and Liverpool, has left Murray-Hession unsure of what to expect.
“We could be in better shape,” Murray-Hession told the Irish World. “This has been the most disjointed it’s ever been – if we’d have bounced from the league straight into the championship I’d be more optimistic.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do on 18 May – it’s fingers crossed. There’s a difference between going out wondering what you’re going to do, and knowing what you’re going to do. And that’s not where you want to be.
“We battle with this every year, but this year it just seems to have stung us a little harder.
“But we’ve a great bunch of lads with the heart of a lion. The desire to win and the effort will be there, but whether we’re good enough on the day remains to be seen.”
Edmund Kenny and Martin Hawley are still yet to feature for Lancashire this year, while Murray-Hession says another four players are “touch and go” for Leitrim.
Of those four, the Lancashire boss is hopeful that Shane Dunne will be able to play a part following a hamstring injury.
“We could be down a third of our starting 15 and that’s going to make things very interesting and very tough,” said Murray-Hession.
“Injuries are killing us at the moment; you’d love to be going into the start of the championship with your full 15, because if we did we’d give it a bit of a run. Especially after last year.
“But we’ll go with what we have and we’ll give it a rattle.”
Lancashire and Murray-Hession – from his experiences also with Fullen Gaels – are well used to these difficulties. It would be folly to dismiss their chances – not least because their recent record against their opponents is good.
Confidence can also be drawn from the form of their opposition. Leitrim have lost their last seven competitive matches and finished bottom of Div 3B, albeit peculiarly with a scoring difference of just minus eight. They were very competitive in other words. They were also relegated from the Nicky Rackard last year.
The last time the sides met, in 2018 in the league, Lancashire edged a thriller in Ballinamore by a point (0-15 to 0-14).
Despite their poor recent run, Murray-Hession still expects Leitrim to be the “strongest team in the group”. And with Lancashire coming in cold, any benefit from having Leitrim first up in Manchester could be negated.
Carrick Hurling Club captured the Connacht Junior Hurling Championship following victory over Galway’s Ballygar in November.
Carrick goalkeeper Declan Molloy and teenage star forward Stephen Goldrick both togged out for Leitrim in the league, but they could be joined for the Meagher by Clement Cunniffe, Vincent McDermott and James Glancy.
Lancashire had 12 points to spare over Fermanagh when the sides met in the Lory Meagher in 2018, but the Erne men are likely to be a stronger outfit this time around.
Ryan Bogue, who made the Lory Meagher Champions Team in 2018 and 2016, is back from Australia. He also reached the final with Fermanagh in 2014 and 2012.
JP McGarry and the return of his brother, Declan, will make them “formidable” opposition, in Brewster Park especially. Fermanagh finished third in Div 3B with wins over Leitrim and Cavan.
The Breffni men also enjoyed victory over Leitrim in the league and Murray-Hession expects them to be “stronger” than last year. Key for them will be the Sheanon brothers, Colum and John, who won All-Ireland SHC club medals with Dublin’s Cuala in 2018 and 2017.
Again, Lancashire will be able to draw confidence from their 12-point victory over Cavan in last year’s run to the Meagher final.
Lancashire’s only win in Div 3A this year came in Round 5 against a “significantly depleted” Roscommon, who had both eyes on a league final. A win Murray-Hession is keeping firmly in “perspective” because of that.
Lancashire’s earlier one-point loss to Louth ultimately proved the decisive, with Louth surviving at Lancashire’s expense on the head-to-head.
It all leaves Lancashire needing to hit the ground running on Saturday in Manchester, or their Lory Meagher campaign could be over before it’s barely begun.
Happily, Old Bedians hasn’t proved the easiest for teams travelling over. Fermanagh and Cavan both succumbed there in 2017, and Sligo only escaped with a one-point victory last year. The same scoreline that separated the sides in the Meagher final at Croke Park.
Lancashire might have expected to have got two games at home this year, after welcoming just the Yeats men in 2018, but that’s one for another day.
Murray-Hession’s thoughts are solely on Saturday and getting a performance out of his troops.