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History beckons for Fullen Gaels and St. Gabriel's

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

On Sunday, January 27, a remarkable thing happened. Two clubs from England qualified for two separate All-Ireland hurling finals in the AIB GAA Club Championships.

Our team was put together seven months ago. We lost 13 of last year's squad, and we had 15 or 16 new faces in this year
Stan Murray-Hession

Manchester club Fullen Gaels, who play in the Warwickshire Championship, defeated Bredagh (Down) to reach the All-Ireland Junior Club Championship final, while London club St. Gabriel's beat Galway's Killimordaly to reach the All-Ireland Intermediate decider.

Both finals take place this Sunday, February 10, at Croke Park. Fullen Gaels take on Thomastown at 2pm, while at 3.45pm their London brothers St. Gabriel's also face Kilkenny opposition, in the form of Clara.

For Fullen Gaels team manager Stan Murray-Hession, he reckons the club haven't quite fully realised yet the scale of their achievement.

"We probably don't realise how significant it is over here because we've been trying to get there for three years now, and in Gabriel's case, longer. We probably don't appreciate how unique an occasion it is," he told GAA.ie.

Murray-Hession is a native of Malahide in Dublin, and played hurling for the St. Sylvesters club before moving over to England in the mid 1990s. He has been Fullen Gaels' team manager for the past three seasons, and explained a little bit about what kind of sacrifices go into making an English-based team compete in a national championship in Ireland.

"We have no dressing rooms, no showers, no floodlights on the pitch that we train on. During the winter, we have to train on a rugby pitch that we rent. Since October we have been training on a rugby pitch. We're still on the rugby pitch, we can only train on our own pitch by daylight."

Not only is there a degree of hardship at training, but Fullen Gaels have an even more challenging task for their matches in the Warwickshire Championship. They have to travel 120 miles to Páirc na hÉireann from Manchester, a round-trip of 240 miles. To put that into context, that's the equivalent of a club side from Dublin having to travel to Limerick and back for their games.

However, it's all worth it as they now prepare for the unique occasion of an All-Ireland final in Croke Park. What is perhaps most remarkable about their achievement is not the lengths they have to go to for training and matches, but the fact that as a group, the team have only been together for a few months.

"Our team was put together seven months ago. We lost 13 of last year's squad, and we had 15 or 16 new faces in this year.

"Most of us didn't know each other seven months ago and it is an absolutely incredible achievement for a club as small as ours. To the best of my knowledge, we're the smallest club ever to compete in an All-Ireland club final. We've only got 38 members plus our camogie girls, so we have 58 members then. So the entire club will be travelling on the bus. So we better all get there in one piece!

"We probably don't have the parish hype that Thomastown and Clara (who play St. Gabriel's in the Intermediate final) are experiencing at the moment because some of our lads travel 50,60 miles to training each way.

"Because we're dispersed that little bit more than we would be back home in our own parish or village, you don't necessarily have that same hype or pressure associated with it."

Fullen Gaels travel to Ireland on Saturday, but will probably be travelling via Belfast as flights to Dublin are currently too expensive due to the Ireland v England rugby match, which also takes place on Sunday. Fullen Gaels have very limited financial resources, and as Murray-Hession explained, they can't afford to spend so much money simply to make their journey more comfortable.

For him and his players, life will go back to normal for them when they return to Manchester after the game, win or lose. Although he jokes about them expecting a civic reception in the city with a "couple of hundred thousand people there", in reality, he says their achievement will only mean something to a very small amount of people in their tight-knit community in the city.

"The thing is, even if we win, because we have such a small population of people, there's only a very small number of people that it would mean anything to and those people are the people who will be on that bus on Saturday."

For his players, many of them economic emigrants who come from all over Ireland, he believes what will perhaps be most special will be the chance for them to play the game they have always loved in front of their families once again.

"It's a great opportunity for the lads to get home for a weekend, to see their folks and play a bit of hurling in front of them, like they would have done with their own clubs down through the years. It's terrific and the hype will probably start on Saturday morning really, but everyone seems really relaxed at the moment.

"And it probably helps that we've been given no chance, nobody gives us a chance because we're a team from Manchester playing against a team from Kilkenny. It's a David and Goliath situation isn't it?"

= = = 

Fullen Gaels take on Thomastown (Kilkenny) in the AIB GAA All-Ireland Junior Club Hurling Championship final this Sunday at Croke Park at 2pm. At 3.45pm, St. Gabriel's take on Clara (Kilkenny) in the Intermediate final.




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