By Damian Dolan
Lancashire hurling manager Stan Murray-Hession knows all too well what it feels like to lose an All-Ireland final at Croke Park – it “hurts like hell”.
Twice in the last two years in the Lory Meagher Cup, Lancashire have succumbed to late goals – against Sligo in 2018 and Leitrim last year. Lightening did indeed strike twice and in the cruellest manner.
For a few months, the Lancashire boss concedes to being left in a mental “no man’s land”.
“You spend seven months of your life with this all-consuming overwhelming obsession, and in an instant someone pulls the rug from under your feet, turns the light out and whacks you round the head. All at the same time,” Murray-Hession told the Irish World.
Joint manager when Warwickshire won the Lory Meagher in 2013 – augmented by players from Lancashire – Murray-Hession also tasted Croker final heartache with Manchester’s Fullen Gaels in the junior club in 2013 and 2015.
Against Leitrim, Lancashire led 1-19 to 1-16 only for James Glancy’s injury-time goal to force extra-time. Leitrim went on to win by a point.
That came 12 months after Kevin Gilmartin’s stoppage time goal gave Sligo a 4-15 to 2-20 victory.
But those defeats haven’t diminished Murray-Hession’s love for the sport. Far from it.
“It’s a privilege to be involved in it. Liam Griffin described hurling as the Riverdance of sport and even that is underwhelming in its description of the greatest field sport in the world,” he said.
Wounds sufficiently healed, he’ll lead his Lancashire team back into National League Div 3B action this weekend against Cavan – a division they won in 2018, only to be relegated last year.
Murray-Hession added: “We’ve put Lancashire hurling on the map and that’s something I’m hugely proud of. To be a small part of that is something I’ll take with me forever.”
The task before them is huge; there won’t be a team taking part in the National League as under-prepared as Lancashire.
By the time they take to the pitch on Saturday in Abbotstown to face Cavan in their league opener, the players will have met up just twice as a panel.
Drawing players from Manchester, Cheshire, Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds, they’ve had to content themselves with getting together in smaller pods in mid-week since returning to training on 9 January.
They won’t even be able to draw on home advantage against Cavan.
Forced to play their home games away from Old Bedian’s in Manchester, due to the risk of flooding, they’ll once again adopt the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown as their ‘home’ ground.
While Lancashire are “used to” the upheaval and travel”, it’s still “far from ideal”.
“You just have to roll with it – we don’t have a choice. But we’d rather have this than nothing,” said Murray-Hession.
“In a perfect world the lads would see each other two or three times a week and they’d do the slog together. That’s very important from a bonding point of view.”
Since breaking Lancashire hearts in 2018, Sligo have powered on to the Christy Ring. They’ll face Offaly later in the year. The surrealness of that isn’t lost on Murray-Hession.
He can foresee Div 3B being split into two divisions; Sligo and Leitrim on one side, and Cavan, Fermanagh and Lancashire on the other, “hoping to cause a bit of an upset”.
It only makes getting off to a winning start against Cavan all the more imperative.
But while Cavan, Fermanagh and Leitrim have all had a change of manager this year, Murray-Hession has been in the Lancashire hot-seat for more years than he can remember.
If it’s an advantage, Lancashire will take anything that’s going.
Murray-Hession concedes last year’s foray into Div 3A was a “step too far” for the team. Their lack of “proper preparation” being “fully exposed”.
Winning Div 3B this year, or even getting close to it, would be an “unbelievable” feat. But he’s also realistic – expectations in Sligo will be “exceptionally high”.
“Are we going into the league to be beaten? No. The intention is to do as well as we humanly possibly can,” said Murray-Hession.
“But when you consider their preparation to ours, it’s apples and pears.”
But winter hurling can be a great leveller and despite their lack of preparation Lancashire will make it their business to match their opponents for desire.
Captain Greg Jacobs and points machine Ronan Crowley are still on board, and despite losing “one or two” the Lancashire boss says there’s a bit more “strength in depth” to the panel this year.
In last year’s Lory Meagher, Lancashire beat Leitrim and an already eliminated Cavan, but were defeated by Fermanagh.
Everything seems to be against them, but Lancashire have defied the odds before.