My Club: John Heslin - St Loman's, Mullingar
In this week's 'My Club' feature, Westmeath senior footballer John Heslin tells us all about St Loman's, Mullingar.
Along with Mullingar Shamrocks, St Loman's is one of two football clubs in the Westmeath county town of Mullingar, which has a population of over 20,000 people. The Downs and Shandonagh are just outside the town, while there are also a number of hurling clubs in the area.
St Loman's has a long association with St Loman's Hospital, a large psychiatric hospital in the town with a history dating back to the Victorian era.
Indeed, the St Loman's clubhouse and its superb, modern facilities are located just a short distance from the hospital, which is still fully functioning, on the Delvin Road.
The club was founded in 1910, initially to provide for the staff of the hospital, and was known as 'Springfield Stars' and then 'Mental Hospital' until the name St Loman's was settled upon in the late 1950s.
In the early days, the club had success on the hurling field (initially St Loman's was a dual club), winning a Westmeath SHC title as 'Mental Hospital' in 1924 before landing a maiden Westmeath SFC title in 1948, beating Athlone by 0-4 to 0-1 in the final.
Playing as St Loman's, they won further Westmeath SFC titles in 1961 and '63, but by the late 1970s the club was in a dire state and was is grave danger of extinction.
"Is it possible there are some amongst us prepared to shoulder the blame for letting it die," club secretary Liam Davitt wrote in a letter to club members in 1980. "I appeal to every footballer to remember that St. Lomans Football Club has been placed on its high pedestal by the Dales, Kellys, Keoghs, Heerys, Hylands, Rushes, Smiths etc. of yesteryear.
"Is it possible there are some amongst us who do not wish their names added to that long glory-list. When we remember football in the years to come can each of us honestly say 'Not I.'"
Davitt's impassioned plea was heeded and St Loman's not only survived but it has thrived in the intervening years, growing from a club that catered mainly for the staff of the hospital to a vibrant community organisation, which now fields numerous mens football teams, has a large Ladies Football section and a hugely successful underage academy.
The brightest graduate of that academy is Westmeath senior star John Heslin, whose emergence as one of the country's outstanding Gaelic footballers has coincided with a renaissance in Lomans' fortunes.
In Heslin's first year as a senior player, 2009, Loman's reached the Westmeath SFC final, before bridging a 50-year gap (to the day) to their previous success in 1963, when Heslin captain the club to a historic county title in 2013.
Two years later, Heslin was once again instrumental as St Loman's landed the fifth Westmeath SFC title in their history, beating Castledaly in the final to re-affirm their status as one of the heavyweights of Westmeath football.
For more information on St Loman's Mullingar, log on to the club's official website.
GAA.ie: What’s the club scene like in Mullingar?
John Heslin: In the town itself, there’s two football clubs – Mullingar Shamrocks and St Loman’s. There are a lot of clubs on the periphery of the town as well, but they’re the two main clubs.
GAA.ie: Hurling matters in Mullingar are a little more complicated, right?
JH: That’s correct. There’s no hurling in St Loman’s, but there is a hurling club in the town and that would be Oliver Plunketts. There’s another club just outside the town, Cullion, and you have Clonkill as well. If you are playing hurling in the town, you’d be involved with one of those three clubs.
GAA.ie: So, who did you play hurling with when you were younger?
JH: That’s another complicated story! I started with Cullion but we bought a farm then outside town and I started playing hurling with Castletown-Geoghegan but remained playing football in the town. Castletown-Geoghegan is one of the strongholds of Westmeath hurling and I was lucky to play with some fantastic players that are playing with the senior inter-county team at the moment. We won a lot of championships. I was a part of the team – I wouldn’t say I had a huge role in it because the other lads were a lot more skillful than I was – but I was part of it and we did very well.
GAA.ie: You spent the first of your life in the US, so how did you end up playing for St Loman’s?
JH: That’s right. I was born in America. Like so many others, my mother and father went to America for a bit of work. We came home then and first of all I actually played for a year with Mullingar Shamrocks, our local rivals. Then, through one thing and the other – my two sisters also wanted to play football – we chose St Loman’s in the end. That’s what brought me to where I am with the club today.
GAA.ie: What age group did you first get involved with?
JH: It was with the U8s. I was there from the start and I played with a lot of the lads I am still playing with now.
GAA.ie: Are many of that team you started out with playing on the senior team with you now?
JH: There’s four lads on the senior team that are my own age and were born the same year as me so I have played with them all the way up from U8s.
GAA.ie: That would suggest you were on a very strong underage side. Did you win much?
JH: We did, yeah. Some years I was lucky enough to win hurling championships with Castletown-Geoghegan and football championships with St Loman’s. Unfortunately, I didn’t continue on playing hurling into the senior ranks and wasn’t able to do the double like two lads, Paddy Dowdall and Kelvin Reilly, who managed that with St Loman’s and Clonkill, which was a massive achievement.
Underage with St Loman’s we would have been very successful and I got to attend two Féiles at U14 level which was a great opportunity as it’s a great tournament. In my last year U14 we were beaten by New York in the quarter-final after extra-time and they went on to win it. They hammered the teams they played in the semi-final and final. I still remember them – they were only 14 but they were massive men, they all seemed to be 6’ 4”, but they beat us in the end. But thankfully after that my team managed to win lots of championships in Westmeath.
GAA.ie: How soon did you progress on to the club’s senior team?
JH: I was 16 when I played my first game for the club. We actually got to the county final that year, 2009, and were beaten by Garrycastle, Dessie Dolan’s team, who had a lot more experience than us.
GAA.ie: Can you recall your first senior game and the circumstances of your call-up?
JH: Yeah, I remember it well. In my first game, I came on as a sub and won a penalty against Tyrrellspass, which would be the club Denis Glennon and Ger Egan play for. I started the next game at midfield so it was a quick introduction to life as a senior club player. It was tough and I was coming up against experienced men at the age of 16, but I was big for 16 and you could horse in around the middle and the referees were giving me the benefit of the doubt because I was young.
In my first year, I got to mark Rory O’Connell and David O’Shaughnessy, lads I would have idolised growing up after the success they had winning Leinster in 2004. To be able to mark them and play against them was a great experience at that age.
GAA.ie: Who were the lads you looked up to closer to home in St Loman’s?
JH: There is one fella I will never forget, watching him and knowing that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. Paul Martin didn’t get to progress on and play into his mid 30s, but I remember going down as a kid and he was still only 16 or 17 at the time, but I could tell you the boots he was wearing to this day. I’ll never forget the picture. He scored 2-3 against Garrycastle as a kid. He was phenomenal.
Conor Lynam was another guy I looked up to. He’s currently in America but anyone would tell you he’d be on the Westmeath team if he was home. He’s such a skilful player and he was a clubmate so I always tried to get the better of him and how I tried to progress on was to benchmark myself against him.
GAA.ie: How many St Loman’s men are on the Westmeath senior football panel at the moment?
JH: Stephen Gallagher, David Whelan, Shane Dempsey, Paul Sharry and myself. Five altogether. There was a couple of lads also invited into the panel – the likes of Kelvin Reilly, Jason Daly and Jason O’Toole – but through work commitments and one thing or the other they aren’t all involved. But five is plenty and enough for a club team in my opinion because you want to be playing football and it can take away from the club. The way it is in Westmeath at the moment the league would continue on without the county players and you still want a strong team for the club to progress on and to keep training at a high level.
GAA.ie: Prior to winning the Westmeath SFC title in 2013, the club had gone 50 years without a county title. Was that something the players were aware of and did you feel much pressure to deliver success for St Loman’s?
JH: In 2009, when we got to the final first, there was big talk that we hadn’t got to the final in so long (46 years). Because we were always a successful underage club we were always made aware of how important it was to progress on and win at senior level. I wouldn’t have thought about it as such – I just wanted to get out and try and win. After 2009, we knew we had the ability to get back there and to win it because we had a very young team.
Of course, 50 years is an awful long time, particularly for a town team, because you have the numbers and with just two clubs in the town you have a big population there. Saying that, we have a small enough panel at the moment, but to answer the question, yes, we were always aware of how important it was to end that long period without success.
GAA.ie: So, Loman’s are considered a ‘townie’ team in Westmeath?
JH: Yeah, we’re one of two clubs in Mullingar so it’s inevitable. As you know, the ‘townie’ thing is not just a Westmeath thing, it’s the same for town clubs throughout the country. We actually have a lot of players from the Clonkill side of the town, which is considered a country area, and I am from the far side out in the country - I’m a farmer - and there are a couple of other lads like Ciaran Kilmurray from my side was well. Clubs might try and call us ‘townies’ but in truth there is a very good mix of lads in our team.
GAA.ie: Can you tell us about the 2013 Westmeath SFC semi-final when you scored 2-16. That, surely, has to go down as your best performance in a Loman’s jersey?
JH: You come off a pitch and people will often ask you, ‘What did you score?’ I wouldn’t be able to tell a lad. The fact that we won and the circumstances we won in are probably more important than any individual scores. We were a point up in Garrycastle and went down and they got a penalty in the last minute of the game. I remember being on the 21-yard line when they got the penalty, which they kicked to the back of the net. I thought they had the game won.
In fairness to our goalkeeper, James McKenna, he got the ball really quickly and as I was still on the 21 he kicked it to me. I passed it up the pitch, exchanging it with a few lads, and I continued on up. Conrad Reilly got the ball and I was on the 45. I was wrecked as it was the last minute of the game, but I remember one of my team-mates shouting ‘Get in there’. Conrad Reilly got the ball and lofted it up and I was lucky enough to get a hand on it and it went in off the post. It was an amazing feeling, turning around to the crowd and my team-mates knowing the game was as good as over. We won by a point. Unreal.
GAA.ie: You got 3-9 against The Downs in the 2014 Westmeath SFC, but that 2-16 has to be the most you have scored in any game at any level for the club?
JH: I think that’s the biggest tally I ever got. I don’t think there were too many higher than that.
GAA.ie: What are your memories of the subsequent (2013) county final win?
JH: We played Tyrrellspass in the final. It was always going to be a tough day and there were nerves after losing the 2009 final. Tyrrellspass had a very good team and it meant a lot to us to go on and win. A great clubman, Joe Matthews, had passed away that year as well so it meant so much. Joe was the groundskeeper at the club and was there through everything. Himself and his wife, Tess, would have sandwiches there for us after games and training so it really meant an awful lot to us that year. Winning was phenomenal, unreal.
GAA.ie: How did the defence of the Westmeath SFC title in 2014 go?
JH: We started strongly and hammered everyone in the group stages of the championship. You could say we nearly peaked too early. We got to the semi-final and we played our local rivals, Mullingar Shamrocks. We had beaten them by 12 points in the group stages, but the semi-final went to a replay and they beat us in the end. They then lost the final which was a bit of an upset, but at the same time Garrycastle had lots of experience, of course. But given Shamrocks’ form that year it was seen as a bit of a shock.
GAA.ie: What are those cross-town derbies with Shamrocks like?
JH: They’re intense, yeah, but there are also a lot of friendships between the two teams. But when you step onto the pitch the only thing you think about is representing your club and that’s it. Everything else goes out the window.
GAA.ie: After the disappointment of losing the semi-final to Shamrocks in 2014, winning back the county title last year must have been the big target?
JH: Exactly. With our club, we hadn’t won one in 50 years prior to 2013 and the opportunity doesn’t come around too often. When you have a group of players capable of winning a championship you need to make the most of it. When we went out in 2015, we knew that we had slipped up in 2014 and we had to make amends. We had Luke Dempsey managing us last year so it gave us fresh impetus, pushed us on and we beat Castledaly in the final. They had actually beaten Tyrrellspass, who were red hot favourites, and were a surprise package but they also had lots of experience having won a few championships in the last 10 years. We knew we had to be up to it that day and thankfully we were.
GAA.ie: How do the two county titles compare?
JH: You’d nearly enjoy the final in 2015 that bit more. Once you get the monkey off the back and win one you know what it takes to win one and what is required of you. In 2015, we enjoyed the build-up, the preparations, the parade and all that a bit more.
GAA.ie: Finally, what are the facilities like in St Loman’s?
JH: Fantastic. We have a full-size astro turf pitch and one of the 3G pitches as well so you couldn’t ask for anything more. We have brand new dressing rooms as well at the moment so it’s great. The new dressing rooms were only built in the last year because St Loman’s gets a lot of games and the county train there a lot. We needed more dressing rooms because there could be a couple of games going on at the same time, training sessions, underage blitzes you name it.
GAA.ie: Where exactly is the club based in Mullingar?
JH: We’re just off the Drogheda and Dundalk slip road as you are coming down the N4 from Dublin. It’s the Delvin exit. Literally just off the motorway.