By Damian Dolan
This year sees St Nicholas GAA club in Bristol mark its 40th year – no mean achievement given it started life as a camogie and hurling club in 1979 before morphing into a Gaelic Football club in 2001.
That it is going from strength-to-strength and has taken steps to safeguard its future by starting an underage set-up – coupled with plans to improve its home ground at St. Marys Old Boys Rugby Club in Almondsbury – is testament to those who have picked up the baton and taken the club. on
St Nick’s was originally founded by Danny (RIP) and Ann Loughlin (RIP), Mick (RIP) and Mary Carey, Andy and Maureen Gray and Liz Kavanagh.
It was soon dominating the hurling scene in Gloucestershire in the 80s and early 90s, and reached a provincial final in 1992, only to lose out to a strong Desmonds team from London.
Eugene Kearney had a “superb game” for St Nick’s in a losing cause, the Irish World’s match report noted. Michael Hellerbert also warranted an honourable mention.
For many, hurling for St Nick’s and playing Gaelic football for fellow Bristolian club Western Gaels was the norm.
But when the camogie and hurling died, due to the lack of close by competition, the club was reborn in 2001 as a Gaelic football team. Behind its rejuvenation were Mick (RIP) and Mary Carey, Adrian Kenny, Liam Woodlock and Declan McManus, amongst others.
The objective for the club now is three-fold; to be the best team in Bristol, then Gloucestershire and finally Britain.
For club secretary David Whale, the first has been “steadily” achieved, while St Nick’s have been crowned Gloucestershire champions on three occasions, in 2011, 2013 and 2017. They were also runners up in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018.
Over the last few years Whale has seen a concerted shift from a “social” club, for guys wanting to have “a bit of fun playing football”, to something far more competitive as the “competitiveness” within Gloucestershire has stepped up.
“We’re started to change as a club,” Whale told the Irish World. “We’ve put in big recruitment campaigns for players and our training has become much more intense. It’s much more rigorous.”
A more “professional mentality’ towards training, fuelled by a big influx of new blood over the last few years, has rubbed off on the ‘old guard’ and brought its rewards.
The University of the West of England (UWE) and the University of Bristol have been two reliable and important sources of players for the club, amongst others.
“Their mentality has been ‘if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right’. Are we in it for a laugh and to have a bit of fun, or are we going to become a force to be reckoned with across Britain and Gloucestershire?,” said Whale, who comes from Cavan.
“We’ve got the opportunity to build St Nick’s and we’ve got a fantastic squad of players to do just that.”
The last of those objectives has so far proved a tougher nut to crack. Indeed, the club is still waiting for their its win in the All-Britain competition.
In 2011, having ended their ten-year wait for a senior Gloucestershire title, a depleted St Nick’s side’s first venture into the provincial championship was ended by Hertfordshire’s Glen Rovers.
Two years later, they were Gloucestershire champions again, beating St Colmcilles in the final by 1-5 to 1-3.
An attritional battle, the Cardiff side led by a goal at the break (1-3 to 0-3) but early second half points from captain Sean McCarthy and John Joe Miskella gave the Bristol side the momentum.
When Miskella then rose to connect with a long ball to goal, St Nick’s were on their way to a league and championship double.
However, they would bow out of the All-Britain to eventual champions John Mitchel’s of Lancashire, but only after producing their best performance in the competition.
They went down by just six points after leaking two early goals.
Timmy Loughlin’s penalty, Noel Roche and Paddy and John Joe Miskella had the Bristol side back to within just four at the break, but John Mitchel’s held on as the second half came to a close.
The Irish World’s report noted; “John Mitchel’s held on under severe pressure, holding back wave after wave from a determined St Nick’s side.”
Whale was part of a determined St Nick’s team that delivered a third county title in 2017, under the captaincy of new addition John Lyttle.
Their run to the final included a man of the match performance by Niall Loughlin in the defeat of defending champions Western Gaels, followed by a thrilling semi-final win over St Judes of Bournemouth.
Niall Loughlin notched two goals and Matthew Mannion fired over scores from all angles, while Nigel Farrelly broke his wrist blocking a shot in a dramatic finish, to set up a final meeting with St Colmcilles.
St Nick’s put in a display “comparable to any of the great performances in the history of the club” to win by four points.
Their All-Britain involvement was again short-lived as they again went out to the eventual winners – steamrolled by Edinburgh’s Dunedin Connolly’s on their way to defending the title.
2018 saw them back in the Gloucestershire final, only to lose out to a very strong and impressive St Judes side.
“After 2017 the goal was to better it in 2018, but while we improved our counterparts also improved. They [St Judes] are a very young team and all credit to them, they were fantastic,” said Whale.
It subsequently emerged that at the end of the previous year, St Judes had held St Nick’s up as the benchmark to aspire to. Those words stayed with Whale.
“We [now] look at Bournemouth and say ‘that’s what we need to do’,” he added.
When it comes to management, St Nick’s do things slightly different. For as long as Whale can remember, management by democracy has always been the St Nick’s way. No need for a Bainisteoir’s bib.
The experienced ‘hub’ of Timmy Loughlin, Paddy Miskella, Gavin Dungan, Sean McCarthy James McShea and Whale oversee everything. It clearly works.
“We’re all very like-minded people and we’re all positive thinking, and receptive to pushing things on and making a name for St Nick’s,” explained Whale.
“But although it’s a democracy, across the committee we’ve all got our different roles.”
While Dungan and Whale take the bulk of the coaching sessions, Loughlin, Dungan and captain John Lyttle are responsible for team selection.
Whale singles out 2011 captain Loughlin, McCarthy (2013 captain) and Paddy Miskella as two of the club’s “stalwarts” – the “backbone of the club both on and off the field” he adds.
Off the pitch, the club is as similarly forward-thinking as it is on it, with the club wanting to “build a community”. St Nick’s is not just a GAA club.
Every year the club stages 5km runs in Clifton Downs for everyone and anyone from the surrounding areas, aimed at promoting fitness. It’s a way to engage with the local community and get the club’s name out there.
The club has also set up links with NOGGIN Sport which promotes men’s mental health awareness through.
St Nick’s is definitely a club building something, both on and off the pitch.