Allianz NHL Div 3B
By Damian Dolan
Lancashire are getting used to making hurling history, and 2018 is set to be another landmark year for Stan Murray-Hession’s side.
The county’s hurlers have enjoyed a succession of ‘firsts’ in recent times. Entrance into the Lory Meagher Cup in 2015, a first-ever championship victory last year (over Fermanagh), and championship hurling in Manchester, having played their home games at Pairc na hEireannn, Birmingham, prior to that.
Not content to rest on their laurels, though, 28 January will see Lancashire run out in the Allianz National Hurling League for the first time, with Fermanagh again the opponents.
It’s a step the significance of which should not be underestimated. Warwickshire entered the National Hurling League in 2012, and two years later won the Lory Meagher.
For their manager, Murray-Hession, who knows a thing or two about making history from his time as manager of Fullen Gaels and Warwickshire, it’s massive in advancing the game within the county, as well as changing how its perceived from the outside.
“It’s colossal in putting us on the map,” said Murray-Hession. “It makes us a creditable, viable option for people who are considering coming to the UK, where previously they only had London and Warwickshire.
“They [the GAA] probably didn’t have to do it, but the fact they they’ve recognised us, given our performances in the Lory Meagher last year, as a going concern from a hurling perspective deserves a huge thank you.
“They could quite easily have said ‘No’, so you have to take your hat off to the GAA in terms of their commitment to developing hurling in the UK. That was a clear statement.”
Following Fermanagh, Lancashire travel to Leitrim before ‘hosting’ Cavan. They finish their league campaign with an away trip to Sligo. Four games which will hopefully set the county up nicely to build on its best performance in last year’s Lory Meagher.
Having failed to win a championship game in 2015 or 2016, Lancashire finally broke their duck in 2017 with victory over Fermanagh on a historic day at Old Bedians, and followed that by beating Cavan at the same ground.
“It’s [joining the league] huge; you’re not coming into the championship cold, which we did for the last couple of years,” said Murray-Hession.
“The difference between our performances at the start of the [championship] campaign was huge. The one thing that was lacking last year in the first couple of games was match fitness. It was abundantly obvious.
“It was highlighted particularly in the match we played against Sligo, who steamrolled us fitness wise for the last 15 minutes of the game. They were probably the better team on the day, but we just couldn’t match them for match fitness. So we weren’t even competitive in that regard.
“That’s one of the things you have to look at and ask, how do we improve that? And that’s why I was so keen to get us in to the National League.
“It gives you a fighting chance. You’re going into the championship on a relatively level playing field.”
While 2018 will be just Cavan’s second year competing in the National League, Murray-Hession fully expects them to “come on” after last year’s experience.
They’re led by the Sheanon brothers, Colum, John and Cillian, who won All-Ireland club medals with Dublin’s Cuala on St. Patrick’s Day, and went on to help Cuala retain their senior county title for a third consecutive year.
Leitrim led Warwickshire by two points in the Lory Meagher final, before the midlanders asserted themselves in the second half, and will be tough opposition particularly in Carrick-on-Shannon.
Fermanagh are going through something of a transition. They’ve “lost a few good players” Murray-Hession understands, and therefore could have a youthful look to their side this year.
“Sligo and Leitrim are very well established. They’ve got very good pedigree, excellent players and they are the teams ourselves, Fermanagh and Cavan will be trying to steal a march on,” said the Lancashire boss.
“Sligo and Leitrim will be the benchmark, and if we can beat them then we’ll give ourselves a fantastic chance.”
The one downside for Lancashire is they won’t be able to use Old Bedians, where they can proudly boast a 100 percent record in the Lory Meagher after last year’s wins over Fermanagh and Cavan, for their home league fixtures.
Due to the risk of flooding at Old Bedians, with the ground on a floodplain, and a lack of an alternative pitch in the county as back-up, Lancashire will play their home league games at Tír Na nÓg Randalstown in Antrim. It will be back to Old Bedians come the summer and the championship, however.
“You can see the size of the task we’ve got to be competitive and hold our own. It’s an awful lot of travelling,” said Murray-Hession, who says they opted against approaching Warwickshire about using Pairc na hEireann.
Murray-Hession believes that while the Warwickshire County Board would probably have said yes, it would have been “expecting an awful lot” of them to accommodate them and potentially ruin the Pairc na hEireann pitch for the championship.
“If it means getting into the National League then they’re the kind of sacrifices you have to make,” he added.
With Sligo and Leitrim on the road and Cavan and Fermanagh at ‘home’ in name only, it’s shaping up to be a tough campaign for Murray-Hession and his players, who are drawn from Fullen Gaels, Wolfe Tones and Yorkshire Emeralds.
Manchester’s Fullen Gaels dominated the All Britain, winning seven in a row between 2010-16 and twice reached the All Ireland Club JFC final. The club has provided the backbone of the county team, and contributed heavily to Warwickshire’ 2013 Lory Meagher success, but Liverpool’s Wolfe Tones and Leeds’ Yorkshire Emeralds are two clubs on the up.
“Wolfe Tones have come on leaps and bounds. There are a couple of guys who are really driving things on and have developed them into a very competitive club. They’re still a new club, but they’ve achieved an awful lot in a short space of time,” said Murray-Hession.
“Yorkshire Emeralds have also come on in recent years. They were a little bit unfortunate a couple of years back when they lost a good few players, but they’ve since steadied the ship and they’re now really starting to push on.
“So we’ve three strong clubs with strong bases, and that can only be of a huge benefit to the county team and to Lancashire hurling. The foundations which have been laid are very, very solid.”
Those foundations are starting to bear fruit at inter-county level, and Murray-Hession is optimistic, despite the obstacles, that Lancashire can make an impact both in the league and the championship this year.
“We’re hopeful that given the opportunity we’ve got in the National League we can really kick on this year, and push Lancashire hurling forward in a big way,” he said.