When Grainne Mhaols first entered the ranks of adult football in the Spring of 2002, I was very happy and pleased that my daughter Lorna expressed an interest and decided to take the plunge. My role was merely to offer parental support as I had done one year previously for my younger daughter Patricia who was part of the first ever Grainne Mhaols U12 squad that reached the 2001 County Division 1 Championship Final only to lose out to St Brendans in Tuam Stadium. It was both a pleasure and a privilege for myself and my wife Ann to follow the fortunes of our newly established West Connemara club in those early years because in our opinion, the ethos therein was second to none. The players were for the most part, young, naive and inexperienced but they had massive energy and enthusiasm for the whole project and it was very apparent from early on, that the collective potential within the group was vast. The teenagers were already close friends from school and the older players seemed have a massive appreciation of getting a second chance after their maiden voyage at primary schools level many years previously. They had great rapport with the younger players and a maternal influence that went a long way towards keeping these younger players well grounded.
Looking on from the sidelines, my first impressions were that this was a very open and fair club where everyone had a chance to air their views and where no favour or faction was given. I felt that the players were very good at taking instruction in the heat of battle and respected their management team greatly.
I was taken aback initially but ultimately impressed by the club’s philosophy of entering all its underage teams at Division 1 level and in this respect, my biggest regret within the whole experiencewas not being in Pearse Stadium on December 8th 2004 to witness our U16 Division 1 Championship Final victory over St Brendans. Three years earlier, I umpired at the U12 County Division 1 Championship Semi Final between Mountbellew/Moylough and Grainne Mhaols in atrocious conditions at Inverin and it was my first real insight into the extent of the football challenges that lay ahead. The Grainne Mhaols girls displayed real character, self belief and a tremendous will to win that night and deservedly took the honours in a really tight match where the quality of refereeing left a lot to be desired.
Meanwhile at adult level, Grainne Mhaols made an immediate impact by winning the Junior B League and Championship at the first time of asking. It was an enjoyable and exciting journey for both the players and ardent supporters like myself and my wife Ann. Two years later, the journey took on a whole new dimension when we were bestowed with the honour of representing Galway in the Connacht Junior Championship after overcoming Milltown in the County final. After a comprehensive semi final victory in Leitrim we headed up to Sligo for the provincial decider against Geevagh where the team put in a great performance with the younger players really coming of age. On a personal level, my conclusion was that we really would have won by a lot more than two points had we taken all our chances. I felt there was a lack of killer instinct which almost came back to bite us in those frenetic final few minutes but thankfully didn’t. The warning signs were there however ahead of the impending trip to the Kingdom for the penultimate round of the All Ireland series but I still had a tremendous sense of destiny as I headed for the deep south with the large contingent of supporters.
The girls played superb football against the Munster champions for three quarters of the match and when we opened up a seven point gap at that stage, I thought we were home and dry. Abbeydorney were made of stern stuff however and in Kerry Senior, Noreen Feely, they had a real matchwinner. There were also a few bizarre refereeing decisions in those closing stages but basically we hadn’t learned from the Geevagh match and our Achilles heel in front of the posts cost us dearly as did a cruciate knee injury to our All Star player, Lisa Coohill which seriously hampered her mobility. Our players hadn’t reckoned with the resilience and character of the Kerry girls who were more experienced and physically stronger than us. They really went for the jugular once they sensed our weakness and for the first time ever I found myself being critical of some of our players who had brought us so far in such a short space of time. I felt they didn’t follow instructions and displayed a lack of discipline and leadership when the tide turned and the wheels started to come off late on. Management made a few switches which didn’t work out and I think in the end, the magnitude of the whole occasion overwhelmed the players and their relative inexperience at that level caught up with them. When I look back now on those trips to Leitrim, Sligo and Kerry, I just feel a great sense of pride and nostalgia because they were great times for gaelic football in West Connemara and we were worthy ambassadors for the region that we love. I will always be thankful to Connemara Community Radio for their wonderful coverage of all the matches which seemed to capture the imagination of the West Connemara sporting public at that time.
When Paul Gannon asked me to become part of the adult management team in 2005, I was both honoured and delighted to come on board. I was relatively inexperienced in the role apart from a short stint with Renvyle in 2001 but I was very familiar with the structures and mechanisms within Grainne Mhaols as I had been on the Club Executive for the previous two years. I had no sense of apprehension or reservation as it wasn’t a leap into the unknown and I was very familiar and friendly with all of the girls. It took me a while to get in on the training sessions and I have to say that I learned a lot from the female management personnel in terms of how to handle and deal with female footballers. We always managed to bring great intensity to our training matches which was hugely important because it meant that girls trained as they intended to play. I discovered early on that a sense of humour was paramount if things got a bit heated and in fairness to the girls, they were incredibly mature and focussed in terms of their application to the various technical and physical challenges that we presented to them.
Our 2005 Intermediate Championship campaign got off to the best possible start with a great win over Clonbur in Clonbur but we were extremely fortunate to get over the line in the ensuing semi final against St Marys, Killererin. In many respects, it was down to the genius and predatory instincts of Maire Cloherty who struck for two late goals when all seemed lost. To win such an important match in that manner was very much a new experience for Grainne Mhaols who were generally more accustomed to building up big leads and then struggling somewhat to maintain them. We stole the match at the death and St Marys were understandably bitterly disappointed. When we subsequently found out that Killannin had edged out Annaghdown in the other semi final, we were thrilled at the prospect of an all Connemara county final. Three and a half years previously, in only our second ever match, Killannin hammered us by 6-11 to 1-2 in the semi final of the inaugural West Connemara Senior Tournament and now we would play them for the right to participate in the 2006 Galway County Senior Championship. It was an intriguing prospect and hard to get one’s head around it all. The Grainne Mhaols graph seemed to be vertical as we continued on our upward curve through the ranks.
The final itself in Oughterard was a great occasion and everything went to plan in the opening half. We lead by 1-6 to 0-3 at the interval and were very much on top. Things changed dramatically however in the third quarter when Killannin rattled off 3-4 without reply with Niamh Fahy doing most of the damage. We rallied superbly late on to claw the deficit back to two ponts and were then denied a stonewall penalty in injury time which could have given us a dramatic victory. That defeat was a real downer and I was gutted for the girls because for three quarters of the match , we were the better team. Everyone acknowledged in the aftermath that our fifteen minute collapse after halftime had been catastrophic and that there could be no repeat for the remainder of our Division 2 league campaign. We regrouped and qualified for the final and a rematch with our great rivals from East Connemara. We enjoyed copious amounts of possession on the day but sadly our ability to create chances wasn’t matched by our ability to take them and we suffered accordingly. Killannin in contrast were much more efficient and clinical in front of goal and we had to accept our defeat graciously and acknowledge that they were more ready for the rigours of senior football than we were.
The following season proved to be our most difficult to date with some of the girls not pulling together too well. As well as that, a number of older players who had exerted such a unifying influence up to that point, had decided to call it a day. A few of the championship winning U16 team of 2004 had also given up football and many of those who remained were starting to give the same if not greater priority to socialising than to football. It’s the nature of things I suppose. Our greatest blessing however was that we still had a core group of about ten players who were still totally dedicated to the cause. We defeated Naomh Anna, Leitir Moir in a thrilling quarter final encounter in Rosmuc but the ensuing semi final with Annaghdown in Killannin turned out to be an absolute disaster and we exited the 2006 Intermediate Championship without putting up any kind of a fight. There was a lot of soul searching after that defeat but one of Grainne Mhaols greatest strengths has always been our ability to come back strongly in League after Championship hasn’t gone to plan. The first time I witnessed this was back in 2003 when after a very tame Junior A Championship exit to Dunmore in mid-July they travelled to Glynsk near the Roscommon border, seven days later, for a vital league match which they won by seven points. This win, allied to four others subsequently set up a rematch with Connacht Junior Champions Dunmore in the County Junior A League Final the following November. As far as Grainne Mhaols were concerned this was the unofficial Connacht Final and in a fiercely fought encounter, Dunmore eventually got over the line by three points. It was the same scenario in 2004 when the girls defeated Milltown in the County Junior A League Final in Clonbur just seven days after all the heartbreak in Kerry.
Two years on, I found myself on the coalface of management as our adult footballers once again sought redemption through the the sanctuary of the League. We reached the County Intermediate League Final for the second successive year with Milltown standing between us and Senior League football in 2007. The girls delivered probably their finest ever performance on that day and totally dominated our North Galway opponents in almost every position. On a personal level, I was absolutely overjoyed to be so directly involved in the achieving of such a significant milestone for the club. To be bringing senior football to Tullycross for the first time ever was a very special feeling for a Renvyle native such as myself. Before the year was out, I brought a good squad down to the annual County Sevens in Caherlistrane where we lost to Caherlistrane at the semi final stage after a great day’s football. 2007 was a very positive year for our adult team and we played our part at management level in helping to get the togetherness, tenacity, self-belief and pride in the jersey back, qualities which had impressed me so greatly when I supported the girls from the sidelines. Our championship highlight was undoubtedly the seven point victory over hot favourites Tuam-Cortoon in the semi –final. It was in my opinion, our finest ever defensive performance with the 2006 Connacht Junior Champions being restricted to the paltry total of six points. Tactically, we got it right on the day and we were full of confidence going into the decider against Caherlistrane.
The 2007 County Intermediate Championship Final was held in Monivea and the first half of same was a fantastic exhibition of football from both sides. We lead by 3-6 to 2-6 at the interval and our half time dialogue with the players was full of self belief, optimism, positivity and resolve. With fifteen minutes remaining and Grainne Mhaols still holding a two point advantage, a piece of miraculous goalkeeping by the Caherlistrane goalkeeper prevented us from scoring our fourth goal which I believe would have secured us the victory. The ball wasn’t destined to cross the line however and from the resultant clearance Caherlistrane engineered a great goal of their own. Our heads went down and the whole team crumbled like a deck of cards. Caherlistrane took full advantage by scoring a further four goals in the last ten minutes to run out comprehensive winners by 8-7 to 3-9. The dressingroom afterwards was like a morgue as we struggled to come to terms with the manner in which we self destructed after playing so well for so long. I felt so sorry for the girls who held their heads so well in defeat and who stood with such humility and dignity throughout the after match presentation and equally I felt very let down by a few individuals whose post match behaviour left a lot to be desired and compromised our ethos in full view of the general public on county final day.
On a personal level, I felt completely helpless and broken hearted but our job in management was to lift the spirits of the girls in the short term and to this end the All Ireland Intermediate Sevens in Dublin ultimately turned out to be the perfect antidote to our harrowing county final reverse. After losing our opening match to the eventual championship winners Glen from Derry we subsequently overcame Kildorrey (Cork), St Martins (Louth) and Faughenvale (Tyrone) to qualify for the Shield Final against St Fortcherns from Carlow. We built up a comprehensive lead and then true to form relinquished that lead in the third quarter. The momentum appeared to be with the Carlow girls and a repeat of the previous Sunday looked on the cards until inexplicably the players pulled themselves together and reasserted themselves. It was almost as if the prospect of another capitulation was just too much to bear and the girls found something from somewhere deep inside their inner being that propelled them over the line. They blitzed their worthy opponents with three goals in quick succession to capture the club’s first ever All Ireland trophy and it was an incredible feeling for all concerned. As a management team we shared the sense of jubilation but what pleased us the most was the fact that the girls had really done themselves justice as footballers on the national stage.
The past year has been a transitional one for the club. We have a fine bunch of underage players who have yet to really establish themselves at adult intermediate level. A few of the older established players who contributed so much to our successes in 2006 and 2007 have also pulled out of football for a variety of personal reasons and this has left a vacuum which the aforementioned younger players will hopefully fill over the next couple of years. At management level, we have redefined our philosophy somewhat. We consider ourselves to be a solid intermediate outfit and are very happy that we are plying our trade in the second highest level of championship football. We will most likely apply to be regraded from senior to intermediate league because a number of the senior teams east of the Corrib won’t travel out to play us and walkovers are of no benefit to us whatsoever. It’s not going to be the end of the world if Grainne Mhaols are never destined to participate in the Galway Senior Championship. Our collective feeling within management is that it’s much more important going forward that we rediscover and reassert the values and ethos that gave us our identity, impetus and purpose in the early years. Unity, togetherness, friendship, a love of gaelic football and immense pride in the jersey that represents the West Connemara region, these are the things that really matter as we continue to endeavour to develop and nurture underage talent within our catchment area. It certainly isn’t lost on me that it was the recognition and harnessing of the above that caused Mna an Iarthair to arrive on the scene in the first instance and at this moment in time our race is far from run.
Remembered by John Francis Flaherty and Written by Paul Gannon
Footnote: Grainne Mhaols defeated Glenamaddy/ Williamstown by 4-13 to 2-3 in the 2010 County Intermediate Championship Final. John Francis Flaherty was a member of the management team along with Paul Gannon and Mary Young. John Francis retired from his management role at the end of the 2010 season.