By Damian Dolan
It’s been a while coming but Thomas McCurtains’ hurlers make their long-awaited return to the senior hurling championship when they face Robert Emmetts in Greenford on Wednesday (7 August).
Relegated from London’s top flight in 2009, the club twice reached the intermediate final – losing out to Cuchulainns in 2014 and Brothers Pearse three years later – before making the breakthrough last year.
But now back up amongst the ‘big boys’, McCurtains are determined to stay there, and they’re summoning the spirit of 1987 – the club’s only London senior hurling title – to help them do it.
“It’s a team that’s still talked about in east London – there were some special guys on that side,” manager Liam O’Leary told the Irish World.
Current chairperson Johnny Dwyer was part of that team, which beat the famed Brian Borus in the final. Current president Tom Watson was chairperson and selector.
The decisive score that Ruislip day was a goal by John Hogan – his son Conor now hurls for the club and was a goalscorer in last year’s intermediate championship final win over Fr Murphy’s.
“Those defeats (2014 and 2017) were with largely the same group of players, so getting over the line [last year] was very important,” said O’Leary.
“Now we’re up at senior, we want to be competitive and stay there. Senior is where we’ve wanted to be for quite some time. And on results so far, we feel we’re as good as any of the other teams.
“We recognise Rome wasn’t built in a day and that this year will be a steep learning curve for us, but we’re optimistic that we can grind out some results. Hopefully we can be there come the semi-finals.”
McAleer & Rushe SHC Rnd 1 Fixtures
Wednesday 7th August
Thomas McCurtains v Robert Emmetts
Greenford P1, 7pm
Sunday 11th August
Kilburn Gaels v Brothers Pearse
McGovern Park, Ruislip, 5pm
Thursday 15th August
St Gabriels v Sean Treacys
McGovern Park, Ruislip, 7pm
O’Leary’s roots with the club run deep as well. He joined as a player in 2002 and has been manager for the past eight years.
Key to the club’s recent success has been its close-knit panel – only 20-21 of them, but they’ve been hurling together for a “long time now” and they’ve “matured together”.
“We’ve got a strong core of guys more than capable of playing senior hurling at any grade in Ireland – it’s not about one person,” he said.
“Dean Corrigan and Sean Murphy in the middle of the field, Ciaran Dowling, Ciaran McCauley at full back. Shane Kelly in goals is as good as you’ll find in a lot of clubs.”
They have, though, made a couple of noteworthy additions, none more so than former Dublin inter-county hurler Conor McCormack.
In December, he was playing in a Leinster Club SHC final for Ballyboden St Enda’s, having previously won Dublin titles, a Division 1 league with the Dubs in 2011, and the same year he played in an All-Ireland semi-final.
“He’s an exciting player when he gets on the ball,” said O’Leary. “You can always be a bit intimidated when you hear there’s an ex-Dublin county player joining your panel, but he’s humble, he works hard and he’s fitted in.”
Another is Eoin Chawke, whose father played with McCurtains in the ‘80s. He won senior titles with Robert Emmetts in 2016 and 2015.
“He’s been a massive addition as well – he’s a freetaker and very wise in the way he uses the ball,” added O’Leary, who credits his fellow Ballybacon/Grange, Co Tipperary, native Gavin O’Mahony, with taking the team to a “different level”.
“He’s a top-class trainer. He’s held in great esteem in hurling circles. That gives us a lot of optimism,” he said.
Further cause for confidence comes from McCurtains’ impressive form so far this year. Ryan Cup finalists, they’ve also set up a Division 1 final date with Kilburn Gaels.
Their only loss was a walkover handed to Kilburn in the final round, when the east Londoners’ place in the final was already assured. Not bad given they were only promoted from Division 2 last year.
A 2-19 to 0-12 win over Emmetts in Round 4 is one result that catches the eye, as does their Ryan Cup ‘semi-final’ comeback victory over Emmetts, when they looked dead and buried. O’Leary is keen to play down the club’s league form, however.
“We’re optimistic but championship is a very different ball game. Those are early season competitions and we’re not getting too carried away.
“But they have been helpful. We’ve found out a little bit about our own players, and the senior clubs in London.”
The spirit of ’87 is alive and well in east London, but just how far it can take McCurtains only time will tell.