Loughmore's Brian McGrath wheels away in celebration after his second half goal in the county senior hurling final replay against Thurles Sarsfields
It’s surely impossible to overstate the magnitude of Loughmore Castleiney’s achievement this year. The club’s second-ever senior hurling and football double was delivered on the back of some truly remarkable performances. No wonder observers countrywide are left awestruck at the accomplishment.
Some context is needed here. The first-ever Tipperary senior hurling championship was staged in 1887. In the 134 years since then a few clubs have managed to win both senior titles at different stages but Loughmore alone have pulled off the double in the same season - and have now delivered that feat twice in the space of eight years.
The fact that a significant cohort of players were part of both doubles in 2013 and 2021 is yet another fascinating aspect of this story. From Sunday’s starting fifteen Aidan McGrath, Joey Hennessy, John Meagher, Tomás McGrath, Ciaran McGrath, Noel McGrath, Liam McGrath and John McGrath were also starters when the team faced Nenagh Eire Og in the 2013 decider. Evan Sweeney started in 2013 and at 37 years of age came on last Sunday and made a very significant contribution to the latest win. Willie Eviston, Lorcan Egan, John Ryan, Tommy Maher, Brian McGrath, Liam Treacy and several others were also on the panel in 2013. David Kennedy was centre forward in 2013 and was again togged off on Sunday.
Theirs is a story of remarkable endurance and, ultimately, deliverance, often in the teeth of great adversity.
The number of one-point victories they’ve conjured this season alone is testament to remarkable mental strength. Before last Sunday’s one-point replay thriller they’d strung together three one-point verdicts in the knockout stages of the football championship. Kilsheelan, Moyle Rovers and Clonmel Commercials all fell to Loughmore by the bare minimum. It takes remarkable tenacity to consistently get home in cliff-edge finishes.
Of course, they’ve been on the receiving end too in tight finishes, which makes their persistence even more incredible. Last year they were victims of that heartbreaking late strike by Bryan McLoughney and that was followed by a one-point disappointment to Commercials in the football final.
That double whammy in 2020 would knock the stuffing out of any group of players. David Kennedy last Sunday compared the hurling defeat to Kiladangan as akin to a bereavement, such was its devastating impact. To then find the mental and physical wherewithal to rebound a year later and pull off the double is a stunning achievement.
There is an historical pattern here, of course. Their breakthrough year in hurling came in 1988 but that was after more heartbreak in 1987 when Cappawhite swooped late for an historic Austin Buckley winner. The late Bill Ryan (Laha), then in the autumn of his years, ruefully reflected that he’d missed the chance to see his beloved club win a hurling title.
A year later, however, they got their just reward when beating Borris-Ileigh by two points in a replay. The similarities with 2020/21 are uncanny. It might also be mentioned that they beat Nenagh Eire Og by a single point in the 2013 decider, the third of their four titles to date. What is it about Loughmore and one-point games?
There are a few reasons why this year’s double surpasses that of 2013. For one, the fixture schedule this time has been bruising. Seventeen weekends on the spin without a breather, and still counting, represents a level of demand that would break most mortals. To flip each week between the codes asks even further questions of amateur players. Yet Loughmore just roll with the punches, buoyed by the adrenaline of it all.
There is yet another aspect of this year that makes 2021 the greater of the doubles. Look at who they beat in this year’s finals. Sarsfields, on 36 titles, are streets ahead of everyone else on the hurling roll of honour; Commercials are narrow seconds to Fethard on the football count. T
To take down two such traditional powerhouses in the respective finals gives added kudos to the achievement. With due respect, 2013 doesn’t quite compare with Nenagh and Aherlow Gaels on the losing side.
The story of Sunday’s final is one of a slow start but it then revved up to a frantic finale, which really could have tilted either way. It was tense, dramatic and emotionally draining at the climax, with John McGrath’s nerveless finish proving the winner.
What was it about those Killinan goal posts on Sunday? Twenty two wides in total waved at that end against eight at the town end. Sarsfields’ waywardness was more damaging because it came in the crucial second half and some of the misses were inexcusable. When they look back they’ll wince at some of the lapses, as they agonise over that one-point deficit.
The first half I thought was disappointing, Sars’ ahead on the scoreboard but Loughmore clocking up the wides. Denis Maher was the standout performer at this stage, a great target man and winning a lot of possession for the likes of Pa Bourke; they were Sarsfields’ two best forwards.
Loughmore, typically, were hanging in there. Twenty minutes were gone before Tomás McGrath had their first score from play but they did have goal chances. The first fell to Ed Connolly, who rattled it outside the post and off the stanchion. The second saw Patrick McCormack brilliantly deny John McGrath.
A marginal edge then for Sarsfields, 0-9 to 0-6, after an undistinguished opening half.
There was better – much better – to come and crucially it was Loughmore who led the way. Six minutes after resuming and the first crucial break fell their way when Brian McGrath latched onto a breaking ball and his strike had too much power for McCormack between the sticks.
Just before the second water break, however, Sarsfields retaliated. Pa Bourke availed of another breaking ball and made progress before laying off to Denis Maher, who hit the target. It was a one-point game then heading into the final quarter.
Once more it was Loughmore who drew first blood. Liam McGrath steered the ball home after Patrick McCormack had made another fine stop, his third of the day. Loughmore were again in pole position heading down the home straight but there was yet another kick from Sarsfields, as the tension mounted.
This time it was substitute Conor Stakelum who intercepted a misplaced free and made the crucial yards before laying off to brother, Darragh, who supplied an emphatic finish. As the tension peaked it was Ronan Maher who landed the leveller from a free within his own half. A host of bad misses by Sarsfields were part of the text too but thoughts of extra- time were gathering as the clock ticked down.
In the end it came down to one crucial piece of action out in the corner near the Sarsfields’ social centre. Paudie Maher should have held up John McGrath but got drawn in and committed the foul as the Loughmore man was wriggling past him. McGrath showed nerves of steel on the final free.
In truth Sarsfields will have to concede that they were second best over the two games.
Ronan Maher policed John McGrath this time and did a decent job of it though, inevitably, that meant sacrificing other aspects of his game. Paudie Maher was stronger this time than in the drawn match, though he won’t wish to see that final play near the corner flag. Otherwise, the defence mixed good and bad in front of goalie, Patrick McCormack, who could hardly be faulted for the failure.
Stephen Cahill was the better of the pair at midfield while Denis Maher and Pa Bourke were the pick of the attack. In fairness substitutes Seanie Butler, Kieran Moloney and Conor Stakelum added to the effort when introduced.
The problem for Sarsfields was that too many players were again off-colour. In retrospect expecting Mickey Cahill to deliver at midfield at this stage of his career and after the injuries he’s had to battle was unwise. Aidan McCormack’s form has dipped this year and after exciting promise in earlier games Paddy Creedon struggled in the finals. Still, he has youth on his side so we can surely expect further progress.
Perhaps an underplayed factor in the final overall was the fact that nearly half of the Sarsfields side were playing in their first decider, including four of the defenders. There’s little substitute for experience at this level.
So, the day belonged to Loughmore, whose remarkable journey continues to the next phase. John Meagher got man of the match, probably a narrow call ahead of Ciaran Connolly who’s been one of the emerging stars of this team in past games. Their inside line of defence has had its issues but they’re strong on the half line, where Brian McGrath and Tommy Maher provided able assistance for John Meagher at centre.
Connolly was the star turn at midfield while John McGrath was still the go-to player in attack. The input from the others was more fitful.
In a sense you feel Loughmore are greater than the sum of their parts. There’s a unity of purpose about them which is character- driven. Their battling qualities are one of their greatest assets and, unfortunately for Sarsfields, they set the terms of engagement in both matches. Now to Munster.
Elsewhere, honourable mention is due to Boherlahan Dualla’s camogie side, which took county junior A honours against Moneygall at Saturday. A tough battle it was, with the winners down to fourteen after a controversial sending off in the first half.
It was another double delight, with the side winning the ladies football equivalent some weeks earlier.
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