Sean Cullinane shakes his head in amazement at the 16-year gap since his native Passage last reached a county final. They contested three deciders in the ’90s (1993, 1994 and 1997) and lost each time. In tomorrow’s semi-final, they stare down leaders on the roll of honour in Mount Sion, a team with 35 titles against one with none. The News & Star trophy remains elusive.
Few know the Passage story of pain better than the man known locally as the Rock.
“In 1993 and 1994 we were very close,” the former Waterford full-back recalls.
“The first game against Lismore in 1993 was a very poor day; there was a gale of wind and rain there. It was very hard to do any kind of hurling. The following year against Mount Sion in 1994 we were four points up in the second half and we had a lot of chances but we missed frees.
“We were definitely good enough to win it that day. I think by 1997 we were probably gone a little stale. We had our chances against Ballygunner but they pulled away in the end.”
Club secretary Martin Murphy feels those defeats knocked the stuffing out of them. As Ballygunner and Mount Sion squabbled over ultimate honours, Passage faded into the distance and slipped out of senior in 2002.
“It set the club back really those losses. Two consecutive losses and one in 1997 as well. That’s a barrier that has to be overcome. It’s a belief thing more than anything really. There was a bit of a fallow period where we went down intermediate but now we have managed to maintain our senior status.”
After losing to Ballyduff Upper in 2005, they cracked the intermediate code two years later against Dungarvan. They steadied before picking up pace. Since 2010, they have made two semi-finals and a quarter-final.
“The most important thing when we did come back up was to stay senior,” Cullinane reckons. “We knew that our team was young. Ballyduff Upper beat us and although we wanted to win, we knew that we weren’t ready for it. We needed an extra couple of years for these guys to come through. To stay senior was very important for the first two or three years and we have progressed slowly but surely.”
The transfer of Eoin Kelly, scorer of 6-33 in the championship 2013, from tomorrow’s opponents enhanced their recovery prospects.
“Eoin Kelly is a big asset for us at full-forward. He is a target man and you can give him the ball high or low. That’s a great outlet. He knows what to do with the ball when he gets it.”
They also started to churn out minor and U21 teams that competed at a high altitude. Noel Connors broke through from a particularly talented crop that supplies more than half of the starting 15.
“You don’t get a team as good as that very often,” Murphy observes. “Like any rural club, you have peaks and troughs. We did have a team in the A division and some of those players have come through.
“Obviously, Connors has been one of the key members from that team. Like any club that don’t have a huge amount of players at adult level, we need players like that coming through.” Cullinane concurs: “The spine of the team is very young.
“There is one or two touching 30, the likes of Eoin Kelly and Stephen Mason. Apart from that, most were U21 two years ago. You need a blend of youth and experience and everyone is vital to the team. ”
Under the stewardship of former Waterford hurler Peter Queally, they have only lost one championship match this term. Murphy cites his motivational qualities.
“At the start of the year when Peter Queally came on board, he got us believing a bit more in ourselves that we could go that step further. Peter’s attitude would be that you shouldn’t be aiming to get to a county final, you should be aiming to win it.”
In May, they won the St Mollerans tournament which contained clubs from Tipperary, Kilkenny, Wexford and Dublin. Little signs.
The passage of time heals the pain and the class of 2013 hint at a return to those heady days of the 90’s. In an open championship, Cullinane is hopeful.
“At the time we were as good as anyone in the county and hopefully the lads on Sunday will get us back to where we were back then.”