THE SLAUGHTNEIL ODYSSEY enters the next phase today at the Athletic Grounds.
One All-Ireland final place secured three weeks ago in Newry, the prospect of grasping another this afternoon in Armagh.
Their GAA club juggling act has been stunning and captivating. For the only comparable side, the Derry champions current adventure evokes memories of another tilt at a double.
St Finbarr’s in 1981 are the only other club to have scaled the heights Slaughtneil have reached, combining two All-Ireland campaigns in one calendar year.
They lost the hurling final 36 years ago to a Ballyhale team powered by the Fennelly family before bouncing back to win the football final against Walterstown from Meath.
“There’s no doubt that it was a golden era for St Finbarr’s,” recalls John Allen, who was at the core of that club success.
“I joined them in 77. Between that and ’84 probably, we got to a lot of All-Ireland finals. It was nearly taken for granted.
“For us at the time, a bit like Slaughtneil now, we’d been successful in both codes for five or six years.
“The playing the week after week in either code, you didn’t get bored. There was no waiting around for matches.
“We avoided the monotonous, tedious training, if you were involved in only one code. And obviously winning made the whole thing very palatable.”
St Finbarr’s Honours List
Senior Hurling – 1975, 1978
Senior Football – 1980, 1981, 1987
Senior Hurling – 1968, 1974, 1977, 1980
Senior Football – 1979, 1980, 1982, 1986
Shining a light back on the GAA at that time, reveals a national club scene that was not exactly revered.
It was an era in Cork where the local hurling championship was the coveted prize and trophies from outside the borders were not as passionately sought.
“The All-Ireland club has a definite date now, it’s become a big competition,” says Allen.
“Back then it just wasn’t as big and winning the county championship was bigger. The county final, particularly the hurling, had huge crowds in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and was a big deal. The first time I played in 1977, the place was packed out the gate.
“At the time, I remember the biggest concern within the club, was it worth putting a lot into the Munster or All-Ireland club series? You were going to be playing into April and May, and for instance that year in 1981 we had already started the county championship by the time we played the All-Ireland club finals.”
St Finbarr’s endured a long wait from Christmas 1980 to the spring of 1981 when challenges were thrown at them in a relentless fashion. They saw off Sarsfields of Galway on home soil in Cork in the hurling semi-final while there were familiar foes in the football semi-final.
“We had gone up to Scotstown the year before to play them in the semi-final,” recalls Allen.
“It was a war of attrition in every sense. It was a real dour, tough match. They were coming down to us the second year. It was low scoring and it was a bit of a war of attrition as well.”
Things never quite clicked in the hurling decider, Ballyhale Shamrocks piecing together a performance that delivered an All-Ireland crown. It wouldn’t be their last day in the sun, instead the kickstart of a movement that has seen the South Kilkenny club stand proudly above everyone else on the roll of honour.
Yet there was never a sense of dreaded pressure hanging over them to get things right for the football decider. St Finbarr’s had plenty prized assets in their ranks – dual players like Jimmy Barry-Murphy, hurlers like Ger Cunningham and footballers like Dave Barry.
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Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
“We’d plenty experience,” admits Allen.
“The backdrop was a fair amount of us had won an All-Ireland club hurling a few years beforehand and we’d won the football the year before.
“So there wasn’t as much of a fear of losing and not winning anything in 1981. Croke Park had just come in as the venue for the finals so that was a big incentive as well.”
Their double days didn’t end there, carrying off a pair of county titles in Cork in 1982. The footballers went on to win Munster but the hurlers fell short in the province.
1981 is an achievement that stands alone – in splendid isolation until Slaughtneil came along.
“It was of its’ time,” says Allen.
“You didn’t have the same amount of training or same intensity of training in comparison to now. It’s very hard to compare generations.
“It was a different game but it was a major achievement to get to both finals.”
With recent stints at the helm of the Cork and Limerick hurlers, Allen has witnessed first-hand the requirements of modern players. Maintaining a club assault on two fronts is far more onerous now.
“There wasn’t the same call on fellas then to serve two or three masters who were demanding 100% of them. I don’t remember it being the same issue.
“It’s very difficult to see it happening. As far as I know, there certainly aren’t a lot of players in Dublin for example playing both club hurling and football at senior level. Some clubs I don’t think allow it even.”
And yet today, there is a club that are one game away from emulating St Finbarr’s achievement. Loughmore-Castleiney in Tipperary in 2013 and Cratloe in Clare in 2014 have both carried off senior county doubles.
Source: Presseye/John McIlwaine/INPHO
Yet it is Slaughtneil’s feat in continuing to blaze a trail in provincial and national arenas that is staggering.
“It is remarkable,” admits Allen.
“To win both county championships and then in Ulster, particularly given how competitive Ulster football is, it’s a major achievement. To win the camogie as well, it’s like a mini dynasty in Derry.
“I’ve been hugely impressed with them, given the standard of play on both codes. Today is a big test but that doesn’t mean they won’t beat Cuala. Momentum and spirit takes you a long, long way.”
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