Tullamore preparing for another Offaly decider
By Cian O'Connell
Something is stirring in Tullamore GAA again. Important matches are arriving thick and fast at O’Connor Park, the locals wouldn’t have it any other way.
Having occupied a number of roles in the club, Paul Dillane is now chairperson of the proud Tullamore club, who contest an Offaly SFC decider for the third year in a row against Rhode on Sunday.
A rivalry exists, but the respect between Tullamore and Rhode is deep. The fact that Tullamore gleaned an Offaly SHC B title last weekend merely added to the belief that significant progress continues to be made.
Sheer hard work is taking place in the juvenile ranks, but for a big town outfit challenges are inevitable.
“Totally, it is probably the first time ever that we have been entering two teams in all of our underage levels in hurling and football,” Dillane explains. “For the last couple of years we have two U13 teams in hurling and football, the same at U15 level.
“We do try to cater for everybody. Our ethos, particularly at Go Games is that everybody is treated equally, and that everybody gets the same amount of game time. A kid that might be your weakest player when he is U7, U8 or U9 could be your All-Star by the time they get to U20s.
“We always look at the bigger picture really from when they are with the nursery. We started our nursery maybe 10 years ago now so a lot of those players haven't actually come through yet, but they are on the way. When we started the nursery everybody started to row in.”
It is not so long ago when people in Tullamore were somewhat afraid of what the future might bring. Important debates and discussions took place.
“I was at a meeting about 10 years ago when we were a bit worried about where we were going as a club,” Dillane recalls. “A few lads put their heads together, the likes of John Rouse and Ken Furlong, we got together, we started doing stuff, we brought a more professional attitude to the underage set-up in the club.
“We upskilled a lot of our coaches. If your product is good the kids in the town will come to you. If you are looking after them - which we have been in the last few years - they will jump in. Kids aren't eejits either, if you are doing things right, they will jump on board.”
Footballers and hurlers are being developed. The club accommodates both codes and there is a willingness to improve illustrated by the appointment of Kellie Kinahan as a GPO to assist in schools.
“Our U8s and U9s train Tuesdays and Thursdays, they will play football and hurling on both nights - they are probably here for an hour and a half,” Dillane adds. “One night they will do hurling skills, they might just play a bit of a football match and vice versa on the Thursday.
“When it gets to U10 and U11 they will do two nights football and two nights hurling, one of the nights will be a match. If you have a match in football you will only train once and you will train twice in hurling. That goes the whole way up from U13 to U15. So they are doing four sessions a week, two football and two hurling.”
Recently Tullamore claimed a third Offaly U20 A football title on the spin. Is that a reflection of the graft carried out throughout the past decade? “Without doubt, it doesn't just happen overnight,” Dillane replies. “It does take time to come through. Our U13 hurlers were in the A final, that is their second year in a row that they were in a final.
“Our 13 footballers were in a final too, both of them lost, but we are getting to A finals. It is not really about winning underage titles as such, it is about the development of players, making sure they have the skillset to move on to adult hurling and football when they get out of minor.
“The U20 three in a row has really helped, it is interspersed with a couple of minor wins too. All these young lads are used to winning.
“We are very lucky in the club too with the support we have from our sponsor Kieran Stewart in Supermacs, Tullamore. He backs us to the hilt.”
Returning to the top tier in Offaly senior hurling is another boost too. “In 2009 we won the senior hurling, we have been down in senior B for the last few years,” Dillane says. “We were unlucky enough last year to lose to Clodiagh Gaels, they scored a point in the last minute. We were very unlucky then.
“The year before we lost by a point in a semi-final so we have been there or thereabouts. There is huge work going on in the club with hurling, particularly at underage. We would hope that we can consolidate our position in senior A hurling to drive it on.
“We had three lads on the Offaly minor team that got to the All-Ireland final when they lost narrowly to Tipperary - Niall Furlong, Cillian Martin, and Jack Daly, he was a sub, but he was injured during the year. I'm sure he would have featured more if he had been fit.”
Ultimately the emergence of talented performers means the future glimmers with promise. With vital fixtures occurring regularly Dillane is delighted that the GAA is so relevant in Tullamore.
“There is a good atmosphere around the club, everybody wants to go to see the matches,” he responds. “You come down here in the evenings, there is a great buzz. You have the flags out, lads are out selling the hats and scarves - all of that type of stuff. It feeds into the whole family ethos we are trying to drive in the club.
“Our centre is great, a guy called Val Smith has done up our centre. You could spend an hour walking around looking at all of the old pictures, he is adding to them as we are winning stuff. There is a real family feel now. We have tea and coffee before big matches in O'Connor Park. It is a rejuvenated centre at the moment and it feeds into the whole family feel in the club.”
Tradition always counts for something. New members are being introduced to the club and visitors often remark about Tullamore’s history.
“Definitely, we played Portlaoise at U11 the other day, they had a look around the centre,” Dillane says. “They were amazed at the heritage that is there within the club, the history that is there for everyone to see. We've had some greats in the club - Martin Furlong, Kevin Martin, Cathal Daly, all superstars. Everybody knows them in the county, but they are your true blues too.”
As a new generation emerges, those crucial connections with the past matter in Tullamore.