Warwickshire hurlers go from strength to strength
By John Harrington
Tony Joyce jokes he has no hair left to lose such has is the toll managing the Warwickshire hurling team has had on him over the course of the last two years.
It certainly sounds like a demanding role. The logistics of bringing together players scattered all over the midlands of England from Nottingham right up as far as Manchester for training and matches are significant.
But you can tell too when Joyce talks about how the team has developed under his watch and what they’ve achieved along the way that he gets a good buzz from working with these players, regardless of the sacrifices that have to be made.
In 2017, his first year in charge, they were crowned Lory Meagher Cup champions, and now on Saturday they have the opportunity to win more silverware when they play Louth in the Allianz Hurling League Division 3A Final.
They weren’t tipped by many as leading contenders for the Division 3A title. Last year they were defeated in the Division 3B Final by Longford and the only reason they were promoted to Division 3A was to facilitate Cavan’s return to the Allianz League in Division 3B.
“Nobody was expecting us to do anything, especially when we were up against Tyrone in the first game of the campaign, because we were beaten in the 3B Final last year,” Joyce told GAA.ie.
“But we were confident in ourselves and it was important we got that victory away to Tyrone because they would have really fancied themselves to win the League.
“That first victory really set us up to push on. It was vital to get that win to give us a chance.
“Hopefully we can keep going and get the win on Saturday, it would be a great achievement to get up to Division 2B.
“Ourselves and Louth were probably the favourites to go down. So for both of us to end up in the Final, both sides will be really relishing the chance to get up to 2B.
“And, obviously, if we do get up the challenge will be to stay up. To get to 2B from where we started last year, would be an unbelievable achievement, it would be fantastic.
“It's all coming down to one game on Saturday.”
Warwickshire’s improvement in the last couple of years is no happy accident. With Joyce cracking the whip they’ve worked harder and raised their standards to a level they would never have aimed for previously.
“Historically we wouldn't have had many at training and we would have just trained once a week on a Wednesday, back when I was playing 10 years ago,” he said.
“But when I came in as manager I upped the training to three times a week. Initially they didn't like it, but they've come around to my way of thinking eventually.
“Some people have to travel an hour and a half but they always make it. You have to put on a good session and you have to get 20 lads there otherwise lads won't come back.
“We hit the ground running early with good numbers and we've kept at it with 20 to 25 lads training most nights. You can get competitive sessions and games in when you have those numbers.”
Former Antrim hurler Liam Watson was the star of the team last year but is no longer with them this year.
Losing a forward of his ability is obviously a blow, but, in his absence, Joyce believes the rest of the players have upped their own standards through necessity.
He also credits the team’s new coach, Gavan Duffy, with the team’s steady improvement this year.
Duffy, who coached Loughiel Shamrocks to the All-Ireland club title in 2012, is a childhood friend of Joyce’s and flies in and out to Birmingham on the same day twice a week to coach the team.
“I think after winning the Lory Meagher Cup last year a lot of the players were thinking they were done,” said Joyce. “So trying to get them re-energised was a tough task.
“I think a lot of them though that was it, they had done the whole Croke Park experience, I'm happy.
“So bringing in Gavan got them motivated again because he was coming from a higher level. That was important.
“I think a different voice every year makes a big difference. By the end of last year they were probably sick of listening to me.
“Gavan made a big difference to the cohesion of the team. It's the same team minus Liam Watson and one or two others, but I think we've improved thanks to the quality of that coaching.”
Persuading players to make the commitment and then holding onto them for more than one ear has traditionally been Warwickshire’s biggest issues.
But now greater employment opportunities in the area and an improved transport infrastructure has made that job somewhat easier.
With Joyce at the helm and the consistent group of players giving a long-term commitment, Warwickshire are building quickly on solid foundations.
A victory over Louth this weekend would only raise their profile all the more and accelerate that development.
“Nobody knew who Warwickshire were really until last year,” said Joyce. “But now hopefully we've opened it up to the rest of Ireland that you can come here and get a good level of hurling outside of London.”