Eddie Connolly, captain of Tipperary’s 2012 All-Ireland winning intermediates, played his part at centre-back. Solid, dependable, no frills. Typical Connolly.
He took a seat in the stands to watch the second semi-final between Kildangan and Éire Óg Nenagh and complained of a headache. The initial suspicion was that a tough hour against Borrisoleigh had taken its toll and that it was nothing more serious than fatigue and dehydration. But Connolly was in so much discomfort that when he returned home that evening, he went to lie down.
It wasn’t long before a doctor was called and he was transferred to Cork University Hospital and the diagnosis was devastating. A brain tumour.
On the Wednesday evening after the Borrisoleigh match, the church in the middle of Loughmore was packed to the rafters.
Liam McGrath, son of club secretary Tom, arrived back there in September 2011 with the Tom Markham Cup after Tipperary won the All-Ireland minor football title.
Players were brought on stage and presented to the people. It’s how it’s done in Loughmore and representatives of other clubs couldn’t help but be amazed.
Loughmore-Castleiney’s players, backroom staff, family members and supporters would make good use of the hall in recent months.
The Dan Breen Cup was first to arrive after the county senior hurling final victory over Nenagh Éire Óg. Three weeks later, the O’Dwyer Cup was on parade after Loughmore-Castleiney became the first club in the history of Tipperary GAA to win a county senior football and hurling championship double.
From adversity came a strength that propelled Loughmore-Castleiney to unparalleled heights and along every step of the way was Connolly, fighting his own personal battle. Just days after Connolly’s diagnosis, Loughmore-Castleiney beat Arravale Rovers under lights in the football quarter-final.
“The emotion of that night was something I’d never seen before and I doubt I’ll see again,” dual team manager Declan Laffan told the Irish Examiner two weeks ago.
“We would have gone through hell and high water to win that game.”
Extra-time was required but Loughmore wouldn’t be beaten. Defeat wasn’t an option, not with Eddie in trouble. On Saturday, October 5, he underwent surgery to remove the tumour.
“Word came out that it had gone well and the mood lifted. There was a sense of relief amongst everybody,” veteran clubmate David Kennedy recalls. “We trained again on Wednesday and Eddie was down there and had a big, pink woolly hat on and we had a good laugh at that.”
When Loughmore-Castleiney won the hurling decider on October 13, Connolly wasn’t there as he had developed an infection and required a minor procedure in Cork. But he was part of the furniture for the football semi-final against Clonmel Commercials and when the final against Aherlow Gaels rolled around on December 1, he togged out to join the pre-match team photograph.
Loughmore-Castleiney went on to create history that afternoon and agony had turned to ecstasy in 12 months, as 2012 had seen the club experience defeat in the county senior hurling and football semi-finals — both after extra-time.
The turnaround was quite extraordinary but Tom McGrath remembers September 1 and wondering how Loughmore would salvage something from the wreckage of damaging defeats in the mid-divisional finals. Drom & Inch had wiped them out in the hurling and on the same day that Dublin beat Kerry in an epic All-Ireland SFC semi-final, JK Brackens beat Loughmore-Castleiney in the Mid football decider.
What annoyed McGrath was that Brackens had displayed the characteristics that Loughmore-Castleiney have become known for — attitude, workrate, desire.
Six lads were out of the country and a lot of football was played over the previous few weeks but McGrath was in no mood for excuses. “The lowest of the low, a pure dead performance,” he remembers.
But with Laffan and physical trainer Alan O’Connor pulling the strings, the Loughmore-Castleiney machine cranked into gear.
Roscrea and Killenaule were put to the sword in the county championship and when McGrath scanned the semi-final draw, he was convinced.
“I knew we would win the county hurling final,” he declares. “Man for man, we were better than anybody left but it was about the character in them. That’s what was baffling me earlier on — that absence of character. It was a matter of whether they would produce it or not.”
But they did produce it — in spades. The six lads — Aidan McGrath, Cian Hennessy, Tomas McGrath, Willie Eviston, Henry Maher and Paddy Moynihan — were home and Loughmore-Castleiney got on a roll that would see them climb the steps of Semple Stadium’s New Stand to collect silverware twice.
They were still going until last Sunday, when Thurles Sarsfields won the Mid U21 A hurling final against a tired team.
The Cahill Cup has to be run off before Christmas and the vast majority of festive discussion will centre around a rollercoaster year.
Sadness and happiness, hope and despair, victory and defeat. 2013 has had it all. Because in Loughmore-Castleiney, life never stops. And when you talk about life, here, you talk about hurling and football.