‘Horse’ sent flying high after heroic comebackMarch 12, 2010 - 8:00am
NOT often do you see a flying ‘Horse’, but in Pearse Stadium on Saturday this was just one of the remarkable images from the jubilant scenes that followed NUI Galway’s first Fitzgibbon Cup victory in 30 years.
When the Galway students went nine points down, 1-11 to 0-5, eight minutes into the second half, one was more likely to make a declaration that ‘pigs will fly’ in the same sentence as any forecast of a NUIG win. Simply, they were not playing well and their opponents WIT looked to be in total control of the contest.
But then Clare’s Caimin Morey bagged a 42nd minute goal, Tipp’s Seamus Hennessy hit the equaliser in the second minute of injury-time, and Clonlara’s John Conlon struck over the winner in time added-on of the second period of extra-time and, suddenly, Mullagh’s Finian Coone was lifting the cup and ‘Horse’ was being thrown into the crisp Spring air.
As most will know, ‘Horse’ is Tony Regan, the man who has dedicated the greater part of his life to the development of sport and young people at NUIG; the man who just recently retired from his post of Sports Administrator at the college; the man who finally had helped to land the Holy Grail of third-level colleges hurling, as a team selector, after three decades.
Lifted shoulder high by the NUIG players, arms and feet flaying in the air, the broad smile on Regan’s elevated body suggested his spirits were soaring a great deal higher. It gave new meaning to getting on your high horse! “That was a very sweet victory,” beamed Regan, now with his feet back firmly on the ground.
“It is tremendous. The character that they showed. The mentality that they had. The work that they put in during the course of the game. You can train all winter but you still have to produce it on the day. That team had enthusiasm and courage in bucketfuls. I don’t know how to define what those players went through, with extra-time both Friday and Saturday.”
Indeed, down those nine points with just over 20 minutes remaining in the decider, it was difficult to envisage the maroon and white ribbons being tied to the cup. “I never thought it was gone from us, though,” insisted Regan. “I always thought there was going to be a response in them. We made a few astute switches, moving forward Seamus Hennessy and John Lee. It gave us a more direct approach to their goal and it gave us a foothold in the game.
“The confidence of having won yesterday’s game [against LIT] in Dangan, against the odds, and after all the hits, they believed today that they were going to do it. They wouldn’t have done it otherwise. There is no way that a team nine points down, and the way they were playing, could bounce back like that unless there was an absolute belief in the depths of their soul that they could pull that one out of it.”
This was a sentiment echoed by team captain Coone, who acknowledged NUIG seemed to play their best hurling when their backs were to the wall. “We seem to be making a habit of doing it the hard way alright. We always seem to be coming back. The determination and heart of this team, though, is something else; I have never seen anything like it in my life. This team never gives up and we deserve this, to tell you the truth.”
Galway’s inter-county centre-half back John Lee – who had suffered six years of Fitzgibbon Cup heartache previously – also paid tribute to his team-mates. “To be honest, when we were nine points down, you would think it would be near impossible to come back, in a game where we were struggling, myself included, to get back into it. However, the lads really showed unbelievable character to lift us out of the hole.
“The character has been unbelievable. I wouldn’t mind if it was just one game, but it was every game this year. We were seven points down against CIT, came back and won it. We were down against UCD, came back and drew it. LIT, then, down again, but came back and won it in extra-time. That victory out there was no coincidence,” stated Lee.
“You know, after six years [of Fitzgibbon heartbreaks], I am nearly delighted I didn’t win one before this, because this is a sweet win,” concluded the Liam Mellows man.
Manager Vincent Mullins – who along with team trainer Mike Ryan also guided Galway U-21s to two All-Ireland titles – said the Fitzgibbon Cup win ranked up there with anything he had achieved previously. Still, having to face Joe Canning’s LIT in the semi-final, he maintained they could never look beyond the penultimate stages when preparing for the prestigious weekend.
“You could never look past the semi-finals on Friday. You couldn’t go planning. I mean LIT were odds on with the bookies, but as Davy Fitzgerald (LIT manager) said afterwards, NUIG wanted it more,” enthused Mullins.
“A lot of games, we should have won them by more but we continually left it very tight. We hit about 18 wides against LIT and something similar today. If those went over, we could be beating teams by eight or nine points. But look it, as it was, we are just delighted to win it.”
30 years was far too long to wait for a 10th Fitzgibbon Cup title. Regan, who was also part of Fitzgibbon Cup successes in 1970, ’77 and 1980, agreed: “Our trouble is that our victories are few and far between in the West, and particularly in Galway, so we should treasure every one that we get.”