It’s crunch time for the Christy Ring semi-finals
By Damian Dolan
Aaron Sheehan isn’t ready for London’s summer to come to an end just yet. Such an outcome at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh on Saturday would be nothing short of premature.
The Kilburn Gaels forward, who has hit 1-17 for the Exiles so far against Down and Derry in the Christy Ring, knows a thing or two about never-ending summers.
Part of the Mallow sides which last year reached the Cork Premier Intermediate hurling and football championship finals, Sheehan believes there much more to come from this London team.
On Saturday, the Exiles must fill their boots against Armagh and hope it’s enough, should Derry beat Down in Ballinascreen. A victory for Down on the other hand, and then a London win by any margin will do for Fergus McMahon’s charges. It could get very tense.
“We really don’t want this to end – we want the summer to go on a bit longer,” Sheehan told the Irish World.
“The thought of being out of the Christy Ring is awful. We don’t want to think like that, but it is in the back of our minds. Game by game we’re getting better. We’ve improved with every match.”
Sheehan added: “There’s real depth in this panel. There’s players who didn’t make the 26 against Down and Derry who’d get on any other team in the Christy Ring. There’s unbelievable quality in the subs coming on.
“Hopefully the other result goes our way [on Saturday] and if it comes down to scoring difference there’s a small chance we could top the group.”
With Down protecting a points difference of +30, and just needing to avoid imploding to secure a home semi-final, the Exiles are more likely to find themselves in a shoot-out with Derry, provided the Oak Leaf County first beat Down of course.
London must assume they will. But if that is the way events unfold, the Exiles have a forward line in-form and capable of putting Armagh to the sword and getting the scores they need to overhaul Derry’s superior points difference.
In addition to Sheehan, Colin Nelson hit 0-6 from play against Down, and Shane Lawless 0-4 (also all from play). It “just clicked” for the trio, especially in the first half, and more of the same will be needed at the Gaelic Grounds.
“We have a good bond and it showed. Playing with Shane and Colin does make it easier for myself,” said Sheehan, who hurled for Cork at every level from U14 to U21 and won an Intermediate Munster title in 2015.
“That was a good sign and hopefully we can do it again on Saturday. We’ve got to keep up that form…. but we have to keep it tight at the back as well.”
Getting the balance right between attack and minding the house will be key for the Exiles. Sheehan and his teammates will be focusing on the job in hand – they’ll leave others to worry about the permutations and events in Ballinascreen.
“Maybe they’ll be a few fellas for us on the sideline keeping an eye on the other match, but the players won’t be thinking like that. We have an objective and we won’t be getting ahead of ourselves,” he said.
“We won’t be going mad for goals at the start. We need to set up properly. Hopefully the game will open up and it will suit us more than them, and at the final whistle we’ll hear good news.”
Fresh from Mallow’s extraordinary year, Sheehan arrived in London in October. Despite his dad having togged out for Robert Emmetts during a brief spell in the capital, he joined Kilburn Gaels. Sheehan is quick to point out that his dad’s Emmetts career was limited to just one game.
There were mitigating factors. His boss is London selector and Kilburn Gaels man Mick O’Dwyer, while his cousin Cian O’Neill helped Kilburn to senior championship success last year.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to play over here…..the club at home offered to fly me back. But playing for London and playing inter-county was a big factor,” he said.
“I don’t think I was going to play for anyone else [other than Kilburn Gaels] – I was going to stick with the family. Michael [O’Dwer] wouldn’t have been too happy with me either, so I didn’t have much of a choice.”
Out training with London from day one, he had to sit out the league opener with Kerry as he waited to qualify. He duly did by turning out for St Joseph’s in an intermediate football championship prelim fixture.
Sheehan subsequently started against Carlow and came off the bench in the win over Kildare, which secured London’s Division 2A status.
Another success in what has already been a hectic and eventful few months, as Sheehan and his Mallow teammates provided one of the stories of 2017, as the club reached the Cork Premier intermediate hurling and football championship finals.
An extraordinary week in the club’s history saw them first lose to Kanturk in the intermediate hurling – a title they hadn’t won since 1972 – at Páirc Úi Rinn by 1-12 to 0-13.
An outcome notable for Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash finally making it to senior hurling in Cork after 16 years of trying. Peculiarly, Kanturk went on to win Munster and beat Sheehan’s Kilburn Gaels in the All-Ireland club IHC quarter-final.
“We were absolutely gutted, devastated. Kanturk are a brilliant team, but we could have won it. We were up by a point in injury-time and then all of a sudden we were down by two,” said Sheehan, who was among the club’s dual players out training with the footballers the morning after the Kanturk loss.
“We thought ‘we can’t lose two county finals in the space of seven days’.”
They didn’t. A week later they beat St Michael’s by 1-17 to 1-16 in the first-ever club final at the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh, with Sheehan coming off the bench to score a dramatic injury-time winning goal to send Mallow back up to senior after an eight-year hiatus.
“I was lucky enough; the ball landed to me in the right place at the right time,” he recalls.
“My best friend Pa Herlihy did the work. It was a hand pass over to me and I was one-on-one with the ‘keeper and I put it away. I think it was the only time I touched the ball. It wasn’t a bad way to end the year.”
He’s been following their fortunes closely ever since.
“When I was back a few weeks ago I was straight in training with them. I’d be delighted if they can get back up to senior hurling. At the moment, though, all I’m thinking about is London.”
And London needs Sheehan to fire once again if it’s summer is to really start hotting up.