Divided loyalties for the Shamrock in Martin’s camp

Divided loyalties for the Shamrock in Martin’s camp
Michael Fennelly will have a key role to play for Ballyhale Shamrocks against St Martin’s in tomorrow’s Leinster Club SHC semi-final. ‘The one thing about the Shamrocks I notice this year is their ferocity. I’ve never seen a Shamrocks team so aggressive on the ball, says Michael Carroll. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

“I’m enjoying the craic massively,” Michael Carroll begins.

“Everyone would be asking: ‘Who will you be shouting for?’ Knowing the answer, but not really knowing the answer.”

This perspective on tomorrow’s Leinster semi-final is a unique one. With Ballyhale Shamrocks, Carroll won four senior titles (2006-09) and a club All-Ireland (2007).

He captained four in a row at U21 A in 2006. Chronic hip problems, as of mid-twenties, meant a stalled career. He is a member of a long established farming and business family in the village of Knocktopher.

With St Martin’s? Junior B the last while, 2017 to 2019. Teaching in St Peter’s College since 2013, Carroll decided on a move to Wexford for September 2016. The commute had begun to tell.

“Last-minute decision,” he explains. “I didn’t even know it was the Lyngs before I moved in.”

A Kilkenny native landed on his feet. Mick and Maree Lyng are the parents of Ciarán Lyng, who will hurl tomorrow, and Diarmuid ‘Gizzy’ Lyng. Into the bargain, Maree Lyng (nee Galway), a Bennettsbridge native, is aunt to Jonjo Farrell, the former Kilkenny hurler.

Carroll laughs: “They are a massive hurling family, a massive Martin’s family. I was only there for a few months, but they were pure brilliant to me. It was myself and Maree against the rest, because they are so much Wexford. We had to keep the Kilkenny flag flying!

“Piercestown and Murrintown are similar in a lot of ways to Knocktopher and Ballyhale. But when I moved first I was kind of unknown in the village. You’d go up to the shop and you wouldn’t know anyone.

“I said I better do something here. So I joined the Martin’s. Mick Lyng got me in contact with Mick Morrissey, also a Kilkenny man, who was Chairman at the time.

“Mick signed me up. Straight away, there were 30 lads there who were friends straight away. I fell back in love with hurling when I came down here. So I owe them that.”

Local gravities took over: “After a couple of games, you’d go down to the shop and people would stop and say: ‘Are you the lad from Ballyhale who’s playing with us?’ Now you’d go down to the shop and you could be there for an hour.

“It’s a great icebreaker to get into a community. I never looked at the GAA like that before. That you can go anywhere and still it’s an icebreaker. You can go anywhere in Ireland.”

Michael Carroll is a highly regarded coach and mentor within his home club. This summer, he trained the U13 C panel that reached, unexpectedly, the County Final. He served as Juvenile Chairman in 2015. Those coaching talents went to work in St Peter’s, which led to tangled loyalties.

He instances last summer’s Leinster minor final, when Wexford defeated Kilkenny. “I was shouting for them,” Carroll explains.

“Because that was my blood thinning out, because I didn’t have any connection with the Kilkenny minors. I was after dealing with some of the Wexford lads for the last four years, in Peter’s, lads like David Codd, Luke Kavanagh, David Cantwell.

“So I was shouting for them. That was strange, to find myself shouting against my own county. It definitely did change for the senior match, though!”

Carroll relishes this Leinster semi-final. “I’ve been waiting for this match for three years. I said I’m really going to enjoy it, when it became official.”

He is impressed by the Kilkenny men’s upsurge in form: “Mick Fennelly is huge for the Shamrocks. I saw them during the league, and then the stark contrast when he’s there.

“Just his disruption of play. He does nothing heroic. Just disrupts the play, get the ball back, and leaves someone else clear it. He’s a pure martyr. He just does his job and that’s it.”

Carroll continues: “The one thing about the Shamrocks I notice this year is their ferocity. I’ve never seen a Shamrocks team so aggressive on the ball. I think that’s one thing they’ve really added to their game.

“And then you look at their strike force… It’s very hard to watch them all, very difficult to mark all six of them.”

His adopted club? “Rory [O’Connor] is an incredible talent. Everything’s going to be through him, taking on the ball and running at the defence. I think that’s where they might cause trouble, if they get him running at the defence.

“Jack [O’Connor] is a strong man and he’ll probably go out the field and win ball out there. They’ve sharp, nippy forwards also. They’ve a good eye for goal.”

Michael Carroll refuses to be drawn on a prediction: “Either way, it’s brilliant, because I think lately people are going into matches and they’re so obsessed with winning and so obsessed with referees that they forget to enjoy the spectacle of the game. It’s a sport, it’s a game. We play it to enjoy it, watch it to enjoy it.”

Two weekends ago, this man was upstairs in Carroll’s Hotel, the family business in Knocktopher, when Ballyhale Shamrocks returned from victory over Clonkill in Mullingar.

“Had to go downstairs,” he recalls. “I was looking for something to wear, and there were two tops on the back of the chair.

“Honestly, one of them was Shamrocks and the other was Martin’s. I said to myself: ‘I can’t pitch up to these lads in foreign colours…’ So on with the Shamrocks one.”

Local banter had its say. As Carroll recalls with his trademark smile: “Off down with me, into the bar. All I could hear was lads saying: ‘Here he is, here he is! The spy! The turncoat!’ They didn’t spare the horses.

“I was only sorry I hadn’t put on the Martin’s top!”

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