Fullen Gaels ready for final fling

Fullen Gaels ready for final fling

HE couldn’t have envisaged it when he took over the running of the team in 2010.

Fullen Gaels had never won the Warwickshire Senior Hurling Championship. Stan Murray-Hession’s brief was to rectify that.

An All-Ireland final at Croke Park at the end of his third season wasn’t what was expected, but expectations have been exceeded … and in some style.

His players have delivered three consecutive Warwickshire and All-Britain titles. Naturally the going was much tougher in the All-Ireland series, but they’ve gone a step further every year.

Quarter-finalists in 2011, semi-finalists in 2012, finalists in 2013. For a club that boasts just 38 male members, with 29 players, it’s an achievement that defies logic.

“I assume we’re the smallest club in the history of the GAA to make it to an All-Ireland final. I can’t imagine there having been anyone smaller than us.”

The Fullen Gaels club was founded in 2005, bringing hurling back to Manchester for the first time in two decades. They added a camogie team two years ago but the club’s total membership still numbers just over 50.

According to Murray-Hession, there are only nine non-playing members, but everyone pitches in to keep the show on the road.

He says: “People like Martin Ryan, Billy Murphy; they’re down at every training session, putting up the nets and sweeping water out of the goalmouths. Then you have Benny Dillon looking after fundraising.”

Sunday’s clash with Kilkenny and Leinster champions Thomastown in the All-Ireland Club Junior Hurling final at Croke Park has caught the attention of GAA fans on both sides of the Irish Sea.

It’s a formidable side from hurling’s heartland against a group of ex-pats living in a place where most Irish people probably didn’t know hurling was being played. David versus Goliath, as Murray-Hession describes it.

The success of the Cats under Brian Cody over the last decade has created an aura of invincibility around Kilkenny hurling at all levels. When asked if he’s done his homework on Thomastown, Murray-Hession said: “They’re from Kilkenny. What more do I need to know?

“Kilkenny teams play the game the way it should be played – hard, fair and fast. Now, we’re playing a junior club team, not the Kilkenny senior team, but Thomastown do have lads who have represented Kilkenny at a lot of different levels.

“Someone said to me the other day: a few of their lads would have been born in Croke Park at All-Ireland finals; a few of our lads will need directions to get there.”

Murray-Hession played his hurling at intermediate level with St Sylvesters in his native Malahide, before leaving Ireland 18 years ago and setting up camp in the UK. Up until taking over at Fullen Gaels three years ago, he’d had no direct involvement in the game since emigrating.

On Sunday, he’ll be a Dublin GAA man, taking a hurling team from Manchester to Croke Park for an All-Ireland final. It’ll be a proud experience, he admits.

“It’s a huge honour. In a funny kid of a way, doing it under these circumstances probably means more to me than it would with my own club back at home.

“I suppose we won’t really realise the extent of the achievement until we’re inside in Croke Park and the match gets started. It’s an absolutely humbling experience because they’re a great bunch of lads. Anything you ask them to do, they do it with a smile on their face and there’s no moaning.

“The long and the short of it is that they’ve worked savage hard to get here. It makes me extremely proud and being involved with this group of lads is the biggest achievement of my sporting life. But I’m just a facilitator. They’re the ones who have got there, they’re the ones who deserve the credit.”

Observers may look at Fullen Gaels’ gradual progress at All-Ireland level over the last three seasons and assume that the same group of lads have kept plugging away and been rewarded for their persistence with a place in Sunday’s final.

But that’s far from accurate. They’ve undergone wholesale personnel changes for each season, something Murray-Hession makes the feat of getting to the final even more impressive.

“It’s no joke. We lost 11 fellas from the first year and 13 from last year to this year, so it’s not an exaggeration that we’ve had almost a completely new team each year. I think that makes it an even greater achievement.

“If you were with a team back home and you lost one or two players you’d be thinking the world was about to end. But we’ve lost almost an entire team and come back and get as far as we have.

“We have some great links with the Irish community in Manchester and a lot of people around the club who support us, so that gives us the ability to help out new potential new players looking for work, and so on.”

Fullen Gaels will go into Sunday’s All-Ireland final as rank outsiders and understandably so. What they’ve managed to achieve in getting there is remarkable. Anything more would be beyond their wildest dreams.

The safe money is on the men from Kilkenny, but it’s Fullen Gaels who’ll be wearing black and amber. Teams hurling in those colours haven’t got a bad record at GAA headquarters.

“It’s going to be a huge task, the biggest one we’ve faced yet,” says the Fullen Gaels boss. “But it’s going to be a day when we’re free to express ourselves because there’s no pressure on us.

“Everyone, including Thomastown, expects them to win by 20-to-25 points. So what have we got to lose? Absolutely nobody will give us a chance.”

Murray-Hession added: “We’ve had some great success but it wouldn’t be possible without the support of people like our main sponsor, Paul Lackey of PL Civil Engineering.

“We’ve come this far so we’re not going there to make up the numbers. We know we’re up against it, but if we can get a good start and have a bit of luck on our side then hopefully we can give a good account of ourselves.”