By Damian Dolan
Ronan Crowley has proven himself time and time again to be a man for the big occasion, and Lancashire’s sharpshooter is well-used to taking the headlines and the spotlight in his stride.
Leading Lory Meagher points scorer in 2018 and 2017 – the latter despite Lancashire winning only two games and not making the final – Crowley again leads the way in this year’s competition.
And he’ll lead Lancashire’s attack in Saturday’s Lory Meahgher Cup final with Leitrim at Croke Park (12pm).
He also blasted Lancashire to Div 3B league success (over Leitrim) in 2018 – the county’s first and so far only piece of silverware – having previously given a ‘masterclass’ to inspire his native Bandon to a Premier Cork Intermediate title in 2016.
For Crowley, it’s an “easy one” for the media to focus its glare upon him. The attention is just “part and parcel” of taking frees.
“You can be the hero if you score all the points, but if you miss an important free at the end, no one will remember the ones you scored,” Crowley told the Irish World.
“If you take on the responsibility of being the freetaker you have to be ready to take the highs and lows, but I don’t feel any extra expectation. Points scoring is exaggerated.”
His teammates and manager, Stan Murray-Hession, would no doubt beg to differ. Since joining the county in 2017, he’s been a key component in Lancashire’s journey.
Crowley is far more than just a freetaking points machine, but the numbers are mightily impressive – 1-38 (28f, 1’65) out of Lancashire’s total tally in this year’s Lory Meagher of 1-62.
They’ll need him to be ice cool at Croker on Saturday as they look to go one step further than year’s loss to Sligo – Kevin Gilmartin’s goal two minutes from time still evokes painful memories.
“There was a good bit of hurt in the team about conceding that goal,” he says.
Saturday is the chance if not to erase the memory of 12 months ago, then at least heal the wounds. A Lancashire win would be an extraordinary victory – the scale of which probably isn’t truly appreciated outside of the county.
“For us to even get to a final is a huge achievement, given the level of preparation of the teams we’re playing,” said Crowley, who works as a radiographer in Manchester having studied at the University of Salford.
Their opponents, Leitrim, and the GAA in general across the water, probably don’t truly realise or appreciate the difficulties faced by Lancashire’s hurlers.
Drawing players from Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds and Chester, they train mostly in small “pods”, and get together as a panel whenever they can.
They’re also forced to play their home national league games at a neutral venue in Ireland – with Old Bedian’s in Manchester at risk of flooding early in the year.
Rushing from work on a Friday evening to catch a late flight to Ireland for matches is the norm, not the exception.
Never question the commitment of these lads and the efforts they go to just so they can continue to “play a bit of hurling while we’re all away in England”.
Logistics even prevented them from having a full squad get-together in the build-up to their make-or-break Round 3 clash with Cavan in Ballyconnell.
“You can count on one hand the times we get to train together – in any sport that’s an odd sensation,” said Crowley.
“We’ll always see ourselves as underdogs playing against teams from Ireland, whose players have been playing together since they were knee-high.”
It’s a very different Lancashire which arrive at Croker this time around. Indeed, the contrast between the form of the team from 12 months ago, on the eve of another Lory Meagher final, couldn’t be greater.
Last year, league success (winning Div 3B) slingshot Murray-Hession’s side into the championship. Despite losing by a point to Sligo in Manchester in Round 1, they ended up topping the group.
This time around, they began the year with relegation from Div 3A – a division which proved too big a step up at this juncture.
Their only win came in Round 5 against Roscommon – when their fate had already been decided and their opponents had both eyes on an impending league final. Crowley calls it a “false dawn”
And despite beating Leitrim (albeit unconvincingly scoring just five points from play) in the opening round of the Lory Meagher, they suffered a chastening defeat to Fermanagh which made “a lot of fellas doubt” whether they would get back to Croker.
Fermanagh was a reality-check; Crowley concedes the Erne Men “should have beaten us by more”. It prompted some soul-searching within the camp.
Crowley said: “We weren’t thinking about getting back to the final after Fermanagh – we knew we were facing an uphill battle.
“Individually, and as a team, we were disappointed with our performance.”
It left Lancashire needing to beat a depleted Cavan, which they duly did. Their 20-point margin of victory in Ballyconnell proved enough to not only see them into the final, but top the group, in the wake of Leitrim stunning Fermanagh.
If confidence had been “low” heading into Cavan, with a final to now look forward to it’s back to “somewhere near” the level it was last year.
Cavan served to remind the players that they “could play hurling”.
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, that Lancashire are even in back-to-back Croke Park finals is indeed an achievement in itself. But now they’re here, they want to win it.
“Leitrim felt hard done by in Manchester – they scored more from play than we did. It was a bit of a miracle that we beat them,” added Crowley.
“We’re up against a team with a lot more preparation and who had a fantastic result against a very good Fermanagh team. Their confidence will be sky high, but we’ll give it our best.”