Allianz NHL Div 3B Final Preview
By Damian Dolan
Lancashire’s reason for entering the National League for the first time may have been championship motivated, but now they’ve made it to the final, they’re in it to win says their experienced captain Greg Jacob.
The former Wexford senior hurler and his Lancashire teammates face Leitrim on Sunday at Ballyconnell in Cavan (12pm) in the Division 3B final, in their first-ever year in the National League. But they’re not going just to soak up the occasion.
“Nobody remembers who came second – you only remember who wins. We’re here to win it,” Jacob told the Irish World.
National League newcomers they may be, but their run to the final has been impressive, as they topped the group with a 100 percent record, and with freetaker Ronan Crowley (4-46) making headlines at the top of the points scoring charts.
Having despatched Fermanagh by 17 points in round one, Lancashire edged out final opponents Leitrim by the minimum in Ballinamore.
Wins over Cavan and Sligo (both by nine points) ensured them top spot ahead of round five, leaving them to sit back and watch on as those below them slugged it out to decide who’d join them in the final.
Leitrim made sure with a 23-point rout of Cavan, and it’s not surprising that Jacob points to Lancashire’s hard fought and dramatic 0-15 to 0-14 win over the Ridge County as their most significant victory of the campaign.
Nathan Unwin struck the winner a minute from normal time for a Lancashire side reduced to 14 men in the 55th minute.
But they would need the combined efforts of goalkeeper Pa Coates and corner back Fearghal McKilltop to deny Leitrim a last-gasp goal, before Clement Cunniffe could, and perhaps, should have levelled deep into three minutes of added time.
Leitrim’s usually reliable freetaker, however, fouled the sliotar and Lancashire’s 14 men held on for the win.
“They gave us a good game and if we’d wanted to we could have just laid down and taken a beating. We showed a lot of character to fight it out at the end and win the game,” said Jacob.
“That cemented the roll we’re now on. We’ve seen what we can do if we put our minds to it. The boys realise that if you put in the work you’ll get the rewards.”
The immediate reward could be a National League winner’s medal, and tangible recognition for the huge strides made by the county and its hurlers since striking out on their own.
A debut championship win came in last year’s Lory Meagher Cup, over Fermanagh at Old Bedians, as Manchester played host to an All Ireland championship fixture for the first time.
All building on the success of Fullen Gaels in dominating the British Championship and twice reaching the All Ireland Junior Hurling Club Championship final.
“There’s a bunch of fellas in the north west, and in Newcastle as well, who are committed to what we want to achieve,” said Jacob, who played in Fullen’s 2015 All Ireland defeat at the hands of Kilkenny’s Bennettsbridge.
“It’s not been easy because everyone is in different areas of the UK, but we’ve managed to pull a squad together that’s willing to work hard for one another. We’ve merged everyone together to play for one another, and for the county.
“I think people may underestimate us because we’re coming from the UK. If I’d have been playing a UK team with my local club, I wouldn’t have taken them too seriously. I think that’s why we’ve caught a few club on the hop.
“They don’t understand that a lot of the guys have hurled inter-county and at a high club level. With a bit of training it doesn’t take too long for guys to click and form a team, and that’s what we’ve done. I think we’re a very good side.”
Despite the logistical difficulties of bringing together lads from Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle, gel them into a team, in every sense of the word, they have.
It’s something Jacob attributes to manager Stan Murray-Hession, who asked all of the players at the start of the year what they wanted to achieve. For Jacob, it was the lure of winning an All Ireland medal.
“Those days don’t come around too often. We want to achieve something as a squad and we have the potential to achieve great things this year,” he added.
“We’ve taken our opportunities and been rewarded by reaching the final.”
Regardless of the outcome of this weekend’s final, Lancashire will turn their attention to the Lory Meagher Cup with five ‘massive’ competitive matches under their belt, and Jacob sees no reason why they can’t be in the shakeup come the championship.
“We’ve seen our opposition and I don’t think anyone fears anyone else. We’re well capable of beating anyone on any day. The boys realise that because of last year’s championship,” he said.
“With a bit more work and a few games under our belt, it’s definitely achievable. We’re just as competitive as any other team.
“We want to win the league, then we can move on to the championship.”