All Ireland Club JHC Quarter-Final
By Damian Dolan
If the saying is true and to succeed you must first fail, then Brothers Pearse are living proof that failure does not mean defeat.
Beaten in last year’s Intermediate county final by Fr Murphys by a solitary point, when hotly fancied to bounce straight back up to Senior at the first attempt, Pearses have come back stronger in 2017, fuelled by a determination to “prove a point”.
For this is not a squad fortuitously assembled over the past 12 months, but rather a group committed to the cause, proud to wear the jersey of London’s oldest existing club and who’ve forged a togetherness out of the disappointment of last year.
For manager John Paul Rea, it’s that closeness which is Pearses’ biggest strength. When their backs are to the wall, Rea knows he has a panel of hurlers who’ll fight for each other to the end.
“We’ve had a point to prove all year, and we did it,” said Rea. “We’ve not just been thrown together over one or two years, some of the boys have now been playing with the club for four, five or six years, and even longer.
“We’re all good friends and when we got relegated in 2015 we stuck together.”
2016 was a final the Pearses “threw away” says Rae, having led by six points only to succumb to Sean Howlin’s injury-time winner for Murphys. For Rea, the loss was worse because of the potential within the squad.
“That squad was probably better than this year’s, but there’s more togetherness now. The hurt of defeat does bring people together,” said Rae.
Since then, Pearses picked up Niall Murphy from Glen Rovers in Cork and corner back Barry Smith, who’s back at Murphys for a second spell. Smith, in particular, has “done brilliantly” says Rea.
They’ve augmented the likes of Kevin Reid, outstanding at centre back, the solid and experienced midfield partnership of Stephen Frawley and Owen Shiel, and Danny Connolly who has been scoring goals for fun at corner forward. Shiel and Philip Hogan were both on the London panel this year.
After sweeping aside all and sundry with ease in the group stage, Pearses produced an impressive performance to beat Thomas McCurtains in the Intermediate final, 3-21 to 0-11. The demons of 2016 firmly vanquished.
London’s oldest gaa club prepares for its biggest game of the clubs nearly 100 years this weekend 🇲🇷 #pearsesabu #roadtocroker @theirishworld @AidanOBrien1 @AIB_GAA @barrysmith1912 @BPCGAA @paulcollinstipp @LDNIrishCentre pic.twitter.com/JAqOyfNJ8f
— Brother Pearses 🇲🇷 (@BrosPearseGAAuk) November 21, 2017
That set up an All Britain semi-final with Liverpool’s John Mitchel’s, with “extra motivation” for Pearses coming from former players Dean Bruen and Paul Uniacke lining up for Mitchel’s.
“They [Mitchel’s] were three points up, but we dug in and we were up by a point at half-time, and we never gave up the lead. We were a point up going into injury-time and the referee played nine minutes and we won by three,” said Rae.
Pearses came out top, 2-18 to 3-12, to set up a final showdown against a Fullen Gaels club which has been the dominant force in the All Britain and twice gone on to reach the All Ireland final, only to twice fall agonisingly short.
“We knew they’d be big, strong and tough. The boys started off brilliantly and then dug in at the end. We won by 11 points but it wasn’t an 11-point game. It was more like three or four,” added Rae.
“But the boys showed a bit of class to just pull away at the end. They’re very fit and they’re stubborn, and they don’t like to lose!”
It’s been a pleasing year for Rae, in his first year as sole manager having previously shared the role with PJ Kennedy, and he attributes the success in part to the work done on the players’ fitness by Shane Kelly.
Pearses’ goalkeeper in last year’s county final, a knee injury ruled the former Galway Minor out for this year, so Rae asked him to take over the team’s physical training.
“He didn’t sulk about it, he took over training and he’s been unbelievable. The lads are very close and it wouldn’t have worked if someone new had come in and just started shouting at them,” said Rae.
“But Shane’s played with them so he can tell them what to do. I just pick the team!,”
The manager’s role is one Rae was “born to do” having grown up with Brothers Pearse. His father’s (Gerry Rae) contribution to the club is the stuff of legend, while John Paul was on the panel as a 17 or 18-year-old when the club last won a Senior title in 1998.
“My family are mad hurlers on my father’s side…..I didn’t really have a choice. But I loved it as well,” he said.
“My aunt took me to Croke Park when I was eight or nine to an All Ireland semi-final double-header and you’d see DJ Carey, Pat Fox and Joe Rabbitte and them boys, and it inspired me. It was a good grounding.
“A lot of the players when they first came over [to London] would have lived in the house with us, and we’d look after then and then you’re close to them after that.”
On the sideline, he provides a calming influence – they’ll be no ranting and raving from this manager at McGovern Park on Saturday.
“There’s no point screaming and shouting. If I start doing that they players will start panicking. You’ve got to keep a cool head, or at least pretend to keep a cool head,” said Rae.
Just the club’s second-ever Club Championship fixture, Wexford’s Fethard St. Mogues provide the opposition 19 years after Down’s Ballygalget visited Ruislip.
Just two years away from the club marking its centenary year, Saturday is a massive opportunity for this tight-knit group of Brothers Pearse players to write their names into the club’s history, although Rae is acutely aware of the challenge before them.
“We’ve got good hurlers and a lot of them have played in big games before – there’s eight still involved from the 2013 Senior county final. So we’re quietly confident, we’ve got faith in our own ability,” he said.
“But whoever’s come out of Leinster in the last six or seven years has gone on to win the All Ireland, so we’re also realists. It’s going to be a dog-fight.”