Liam Mellows marching again
By Cian O'Connell
“I started hurling at senior myself in 1988, I played for more than 20 years; I saw the dark and hard days when to avoid a relegation battle was nearly a success for the year,” Liam Mellows stalwart and selector Seanie O’Brien says on a wild and wet Saturday afternoon in Ballyloughane.
A third Galway SHC Final appearance on the spin looms ensuring O’Brien is completely aware of the distance that has been travelled.
City clubs deal with different challenges, but the spirit that has been cultivated by Liam Mellows is something which matters deeply.
A Galway title was secured for the first time in 47 years in 2017, Mellows have subsequently reached the next two deciders with Sunday’s encounter against St Thomas’ promising to be interesting.
The green and white has been a central part of O’Brien’s existence. So to go from being a player to standing alongside Louis Mulqueen in Mellows rise has been quite a journey.
“We got to a county semi-final in 1993 and we thought we were back,” O’Brien reflects. “It took us another 15 years to get into another semi-final when we played Portumna.
“When you have success one year, it doesn't guarantee you success the next year. You have to build on these things, to keep the conveyor belt of young people coming through, to make sure they are put on the right direction in life and on the pitch. If you do that you will be successful.”
Ultimately what are the differences between now and previously when Mellows carried a threat without truly delivering to maximum potential?
“Obviously we did hard work back in them days, but the juvenile side of the club has expanded massively in the last few years,” O’Brien states.
“We have started competing at A level which is massive. The nucleus of that team played in six County A finals against Turloughmore from Under 14 up to Under 21.
“Every one of them went to a replay which is an unbelievable stat. Turlough came out on top in all of them finals, but the experience them guys picked up over the years is coming to fruition now.”
The sentiments are shared by Liam Mellows Chairman Brian Keville, who acknowledges that these are particularly exciting times. “It is a little bit surreal,” Keville admits.
“In 2017 it was almost as if we had never been in one given that it had been 47 years since we had been in one previously.
“It was all new to us then, there were people around the club that had been there before, but nobody that was really actively involved was even born. Now three years on we are taking it in our stride somewhat.
“We can no longer say it is new or unknown to us. I suppose it is very reassuring and satisfying that we have got back here three years in a row. We must be doing something right and it is a huge validation of the work that so many volunteers in the club have been doing.
“Not just over the last three years, but over the last 20 to 25 years, to bring this crop of players through the structures of the club, to get them to perform on what is the biggest day for hurling in the county.”
David Collins is Mellows’ most recognisable player, but since leaving the inter-county arena, he has simply relished being part of the renaissance.
Vision was demonstrated by the Mellows Executive, who have employed a full-time coach, while also working tirelessly on off field projects.
“They have, it started when we hired a full time coach to go into schools to educate the young kids,” Collins states.
“Mellows piloted it and it has been massively successful, the way our coaches behave bringing the kids along, making them enjoy it.
“When you are a young fella it isn't all about winning, it is about enjoying it, winning the odd game, so be it if you don't. When you get to our level you want to win everything because you never know what could happen or what is around the corner.”
The past brought glory, the future glimmers with possibilities, but the present is critical too.
Being relevant is what Mellows craved to be. For too long excuses were made, faults found, and campaigns ended reflecting on what might have been.
So now O’Brien can walk through the streets of Galway with Mellows quickly becoming a chief topic of conversation. That wasn’t always the case, but something has been stirred Corribside.
“It is true, you meet a lad down town and he'd congratulate on getting to a county final or winning it,” O’Brien says.
“He'd have a relation or know somebody, you wouldn't have thought he was interested in hurling at all. Next thing he'd bring out his history, his grandfather or uncle might have played.
“The success means people want to join or come onboard, that is brilliant. Even walking down town people are wishing you luck, you'd ask what involvement they'd have and it would go back to relatives, they might even have played themselves in the 50s and 60s.
“To see the young fellas going around with their gear and them all proud, the bunting and flags it is just brilliant for the club.
“You see them going around with Mellows jerseys, they are carrying their hurl and they are proud.”
Such a sense of belonging and a desire to be part of the Mellows roar and story counts according to O’Brien. “It is very important,” O’Brien adds.
“That is what we are looking to - the future. It isn't just these few years that you hone in on. In another five or six years these lads will be pushing on to 30 or 31 years of age, you need a conveyor belt of younger guys coming through.
“So it is important that we are competing at a high standard at underage, that we can bring that through to adult hurling. We have good facilities, we are building another brand new pitch, and these things add up. If you try to become competitive at a high level and you are doing that you will always bring success to the club.”
Collins is thrilled to be involved for Mellows. Young children in the city club are being exposed to high quality games. County Finals with Pearse Stadium providing the backdrop.
“It wasn't always the case, they were going out to Athenry to see us play in a relegation match,” Collins responds instantly.
“What it has done for the club is massive, you can see the development going on out in the background and even the fundraising campaign. It is much easier to ask somebody to help us build the club and fundraise when you are preparing for county finals.
“It is a lot more difficult when you are down in the doldrums in relegation battles, playing at a lower level than you know you can play. We have a great set-up, a great young crew coming through. We had 30 odd training on Friday night, so you'd know there is a county final coming down the tracks.”
Keville is encouraged by how Liam Mellows are showing a willingness to improve. Adding a third full size pitch is merely the next project currently happening.
“It is a grass pitch designed and built to a very high specification so that it will be playable all year and in all weather with 500 lux floodlights,” Keville remarks. “It will be able for a full game as good as any pitch in the province.
“We saw that in 2017 how stuck we were for facilities when we had to play long into the winter. That was a deciding factor for us where we said we had to be fully self sufficient for all our playing facility needs going forward.
“Clubs were very generous making their grounds available to us, but we can't rely on that generosity forever. We have to and want to become fully self sufficient to be able to accommodate all the needs of our own club teams in Ballyloughane.”
The flagship team has flourished under the shrewd guidance of Louis Mulqueen. Heavily linked with inter-county roles recently Mulqueen remains a cherished figure by Mellows.
Mulqueen and Mellows have dovetailed nicely. “Louis has been a fantastic fit for the club,” Keville acknowledges.
“He has been a great person for the rest of the management to work alongside. The management team have got huge support and buy in from the entire playing group.
“Essentially there has been one big happy family for three years. Everybody that has been part of that family has played a part in creating that culture, that environment.
“It is in such environments that we feel and we believe we can get the best out of our players and management. Hence why we are here three years in a row.”
Within a matter of days following the 2018 Galway SHC Final defeat against next weekend’s opponents St Thomas’ Mellows’ thoughts had already shifted. “I think pretty quickly after last year's defeat there was a determination to give it another shot, to maybe take a slightly different approach,” Keville adds.
“A strength and conditioning programme was literally implemented a week after the final defeat last year. I think we have seen the fruits of that in some games this year, but that is a long term project too.
“We are probably 10 months into something that we will sustain for years to come. I think once there was a few days given to carry out the post mortem on last year's defeat, it was very quickly refocusing on what could be done differently to get a different result in 2019. That is still the mission.”
O’Brien is adamant about the belief and conviction Mulqueen injected to Mellows’ collection of emerging and established hurlers.
“Louis is a born winner, that is what he is,” O’Brien stresses. “He has high standards at training and on the day of matches. He also brings fun and enjoyment to the club and to the lads. He has been around a long time, he has been involved in hurling for more than 30 years.
“That experience he brought has been huge for the lads. A lot of them would have been 20 or 21 when they came onboard with Louis, but they have matured throughout the last three years.
“You can see it in their game, even from 2017 up to today, how much they have progressed themselves. The maturity they have shown. Louis is a winner and the lads have that mentality now, they don't panic.
“Next ball is the most important ball even if you are after scoring a goal or your man getting a goal, but it is the next ball the whole time. That is what he instils into the players. The lads have bought into it.”
Collins very much subscribes to that theory. “He is a Mellows man now at this stage, we are totally claiming him,” the former Galway captain laughs. “I admire the man, he is a principal in Ennis, how he has the time, how he manages it. He is up and down the road like a lunatic. He is part of the Mellows family, he is up here, he has the craic with everybody.
“He is known and loved by everybody, but when he goes out on the field it is the response he gets from everybody in the club. He puts in structures for coaches and gyms, he has seen it all. He has 30 odd years experience, he will hate me saying that, but he has been at every level of the game.
“He has been a treasure to the club, a great find, and his reputation speaks for itself. Three years, three county finals, win it or not it has been a fantastic achievement for the club. I really hope it drives the club forward for the coming years.”
For all the glory, Collins hasn’t forgotten about what went before either. Mellows are maintaining a tradition. Links to the past, people who kept the show on the road when it was far from fashionable aren’t forgotten.
“Four years ago I didn't envisage this, even three,” Collins says. “It is fantastic, what it really means is you see guys in the club, I'd be talking about Paddy Kearns, the likes of him, Paddy Murphy down the road from me in Lurgan Park.
“He is coming up to watch training, what it means to them lads to be in a county final again. It is about winning it now. We went out last year, we didn't play well, but we know what is ahead of us this year. So it is going to be a different challenge.”
One that must be embraced because Thomas’ will bring a team studded with stars into Salthill. There is a genuine appreciation and respect for how Thomas’ have fared during the last decade. Mellows, story, though, too is a lesson in what can be achieved.