By Larry Cooney
Lancashire’s hurlers are preparing for one of the biggest days in their county’s history with a first-ever appearance in Croke Park this Saturday afternoon.
The Exiles face a Sligo team in the Lory Meagher Cup final (throw in 12pm) who are much more familiar with GAA headquarters having contested consecutive Lory Meagher finals in 2015 and 2016.
And the men from the Yeats County can also boast a superior record in their previous meetings with Lancashire, including a narrow first round victory at Old Bedian’s, Manchester, as recent as May.
But earlier this year Lancashire did record a well-deserved 3-15 to 2-9 victory over Sligo in Markievicz Park on their way to winning Division 3B. The Exiles will be quietly confident they can repeat that result on Saturday.
That Lancashire can grace such a stage can be attributed in no small measure to the work and success of one GAA club from Manchester, which inspired the Lancashire hurling revival.
Although there are scant old records of previous hurling activity in the north-west region of England dating back as far as 1929, Saturday’s Croke Park appearance is the culmination of the enormous work undertaken as part of the revival of the game in that area since the establishment of Fullen Gaels in 2005.
Having had to affiliate to Warwickshire in their early years, the club has enjoyed extraordinary success and contested two All-Ireland Club finals in 2013 and 2015 before losing out to Kilkenny opposition.
Fullen Gaels also provided a number of members of the 2013 Warwickshire Lory Meagher Cup winning team, including captain Conal Maskey.
Conal’s brother Daire, Paddy Duggan, Liam Knocker and Simon Wallace are also survivors from that team, who are now looking to win their second Lory Meagher Cup medal this Saturday.
But perhaps the most pivotal figure of all in the recent Fullen Gaels–Lancashire hurling success story is team manager and popular Dubliner Stan Murray-Hession.
Aside from jointly managing the 2013 Lory Meagher Cup winning Warwickshire team, the recruitment company director from Malahide, was also involved in masterminding Fullen Gaels’ march to two Croke Park club championship finals. Saturday will be his fourth Croke Park appearance as a manager.
But while the majority of team managers have their hands full in coaching and mentoring their teams, Murray-Hession also plays a key role in the logistic arrangements for travelling to games, as well as arranging training sessions, whenever that is possible.
Since the Exiles also had to play all of their five league fixtures in Ireland the Lancashire manager had to make all the necessary travel and subsistence arrangements for his team.
And because seven of the team are based in the north-east in Newcastle, and five in Liverpool, training sessions usually rotate between Manchester and Leeds every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.
Murray-Hession has been involved with the Fullen Gaels club since 2009 and although he does not have a major playing background in the game, his results as a manager really speak for themselves.
“I got involved through a chance meeting with someone at the local school who asked me to get involved with the club in some capacity,” he told the Irish World.
“I have to say my association with Fullen Gaels and Lancashire GAA has really changed my life and I’m delighted to be able to share in the success of the club and now the county over the last four years.”
He admits that he is also pleasantly surprised that the club has enjoyed extraordinary success over the last five years.
“There’s been some great days in that time but strangely enough it’s the memories of the disappointing days that seem to remain with you,” he said.
“The effort that the lads put in only to end up on the losing side, especially for Fullen Gaels in 2013 against Thomastown from Kilkenny and more recently Lancashire against Sligo last month.”
When asked if he is looking forward to his fourth Croke Park final, the Lancashire manager responded: “I really want to play down this fact and put the emphasis on the men who really matter and have made the real sacrifice and commitment this year.
“Hopefully we can all carry it through to the final whistle and hopefully onto the winning rostrum in the Ard Comhairle in Croke Park this Saturday afternoon.”
After clinching promotion to Division 3A in their debut league season, just what would winning their first Lory Meagher Cup title mean for the game in the area?
The Lancashire manager admits he’s been very pleased with the progress of the team in its inaugural year in the league, but winning the ‘double’ would make it a very special year for the Exiles.
“It’s only 15 years since Fullen Gaels was established and with clubs such as Wolfe Tones in Liverpool and Emerald Gaels from Leeds now participating in the Lancashire championship, it is hoped that more clubs will be inspired by the success of the county team,” said Murray-Hession.
He added: “Wolfe Tones have progressed well since they became the second Lancashire-based club and it is hoped that there will be scoped for further clubs to affiliate.”