By Damian Dolan
Lancashire’s hurlers will once again go the distance to continue flying the flag for the county, so a few hundred miles isn’t going to get in their way.
Such is the wide geographical area from which the team draws its hurlers, the players train separately during the week and can only meet up as a panel at weekends. Far from ideal.
In preparation for arguably the biggest challenge the side has faced – Division 3A – the players have been descending on Leeds every weekend from Liverpool (2), Newcastle (10), Chester (5) and Manchester (14). As well as two from Leeds itself.
For those making the trek from Newcastle, it’s a 200-mile round trip. And this is just for training remember.
Due to the unavailability of their home ground – Old Bedians in Manchester – at this time of year due to the risk of flooding, their ‘home’ national league games will be played in Dublin at the GAA’s National Games Development Centre (NGDC) in Abbotstown.
Last year, they were played at Tir Na nOg Randalstown in Antrim.
It’s gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘commitment’ for “hurling’s travellers”, as Murray-Hession calls them.
It’s also a massive testament to those at the coal-face that 2019 is another landmark year for the county. And there’s been a few of those since entering the Lory Meagher in 2015 under its own flag, having two years earlier helped Warwickshire to lift the same title.
It’s against this backdrop that Lancashire will try their luck in Division 3A for the first time, following last year’s Div 3B success. And they came agonisingly close to making it a league-championship double in 2018, only to lose out to a late Sligo goal.
This promises to be a whole new ball game, however, as the men from the North rub shoulders with sides accustomed to plying their trade in the Nicky Rackard and Christy Ring.
“Interesting” is how manager Stan Murray-Hession describes it.
“It will be the third round of the league before we start to really find our feet, and by then we’ll see how we go,” he told the Irish World.
It almost defies belief that Lancashire are in such company, given their geographical headaches.
“Getting together for training sessions in December and January is rather difficult, but in fairness since the turn of the year I can’t fault the fellas. They’ve been out doing their own bit,” said Murray-Hession.
But here they are. The greater the odds, the greater Lancashire seem to relish the challenge.
First up (in Dublin) they face a Tyrone side which reached last year’s Nicky Rackard semi-finals. Likewise Monaghan. Armagh (who’ve come down from Div 2B) and Roscommon both hurled in the Christy Ring last year.
Louth reached the Div 3B final – where they were beaten by Lancashire – and also hurl in the Nicky Rackard.
Murray-Hession, who is in his fourth-year at the Lancashire helm over two spells, is also a realist. He knows that survival will be a “great achievement”.
“We are well and truly up against it. It’s not as simple as just considering where we’re at – the competition is at a very, very different level,” he said.
“But it’s great to be up there. We won the league [last year] and we wouldn’t change that.
“You want to be improving. If you don’t stretch yourself and push yourself against teams like this you’ll never find out what you’re capable of.
“The better the competition the better we’ll have to play. It will probably take us a couple of games to get into our stride, but is that any harm?
— LancsGAAofficial (@lancsGAAofficia) January 21, 2019
“We’re not expecting to win 3A so let’s learn from it and find out about ourselves. Let’s put together a pattern of play that we’re happy with and can take into the championship.”
Lancashire won’t be short of motivation; the manner of last year’s Croke Park final defeat to a late Sligo goal clearly still rankles with Murray-Hession.
But it isn’t just Kevin Gilmartin’s goal in the final minute that irks – it was the blowing of the final whistle with Lancashire on the Sligo 21 and one of their players poised to “stick it over the bar”.
“How much have I put it away? That probably answers it. You never get over defeats like that,” said Murray-Hession.
“I’ve not spoken to the players about that to any great extent and it will prove to be an enormous motivator I imagine for this year, but ultimately winning the competition this year is what has to motivate us, not last year’s defeat.
“You can’t change history. You can only make decisions that impact upon the future.
“While it will be in the back of our minds as a motivator, it can’t consume us to the point where it becomes the only motivator. Wanting to win has to override any emotion or feeling from last year.
“You hear people talk about ‘putting last year right’. You can’t put last year right, but to a certain extent winning it this year might just help to alleviate what happened and the feeling towards it.
“But days like that bring you back – whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Lancashire may be up against it, but what’s new? As always, they won’t be found wanting.