In the well-produced programme for the recent Clare county senior hurling final the date of birth for Niall Gilligan was given as 12/8/1986.
An error, perhaps, but certainly a portent.
Born a decade earlier, a year before Sixmilebridge won their first Clare senior title, Gilligan has been playing this season more like a 27-year-old in his prime than the 37-year-old veteran in his twilight hurling years.
“I said earlier this year, he’s like a good wine, getting better with age!” says manager John O’Meara, himself three years younger than the man known inside Clare as simply ‘Gillie’.
“He’s an outstanding Bridge man, an outstanding club man, an outstanding person.
“Every one of those lads look up to him and have done for many years. He’s been doing this for the club since 1996, as a 19-year-old. He just loves hurling and loves the Bridge.”
In that county final, on a filthy day when every score was invaluable, Gilligan scored 1-6 of his side’s 1-10 against champions Newmarket-on-Fergus. And he was at it again in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday as the Banner men overpowered Cork champions Midleton in the Munster club semi-final. On this occasion he was the set-up man, scored just three points before handing over free-taking duties to midfielder Jamie Shanahan after suffering what he politely termed as a ‘blow in a tender area!’ Thereafter though, he created two vital points for Pa Sheehan, another for the flying Seadhna Morey.
His heroics have helped Sixmilebridge to Sunday’s Munster final against Limerick champions Na Piarsaigh, in Cusack Park, Ennis.
It’s the ninth Munster final for the club, but the last of those was 11 years ago. With so many youngsters in the team, that means Gilligan is one of the few to have tasted that experience.
“I’m not just throwing out old clichés when I say Na Piarsaigh are a very good team with lots of outstanding individuals. It’s just a fact. They’ve been there before, won the title only two years ago, so they’re a lot more experienced than us at this level. They know what it takes not just to get here but to win it. Another advantage they have is that they’re managed by Seán Stack, one of our favourite sons in Sixmilebridge.
“Most of the lads on this team are too young to remember Seán playing, but I do. He was my idol growing up, we all looked up to him. Makes for a great week I suppose.”
Na Piarsaigh will have the inside track then and while many in Cork might have been taken by surprise by just how good this new Bridge team is, as someone whose heart and whose interest is still very much with his home club, Stack knows. And they are a talented bunch, says Gilligan, very talented.
“We won three of the last five Clare U21 titles, as Clare were winning three All-Ireland U21 championships. We also got to four minor county finals in a row, won one of those so there’s loads of young talent coming through in the club. I suppose people are just looking at who’s on the county senior team but that doesn’t tell the full story, does it?
“Pa Sheehan played against Midleton, he’s U21, so is Brian Carey, Noel Purcell, Kevin Lynch, Jamie Shanahan, Seadhna Morey, Alan Mulready, and Conor Deasy and Brian Corry who came on as subs. Our panel is our strength. Why we were written off against Midleton I don’t know — maybe people thought there’d be wild celebrations in the Bridge for the week after the final but that’s not how it was.”
Callow or not, Sixmilebridge will be ready.
“The county final was like the depths of winter, the ball holding up in the muck, the Midleton match was like a game in June by comparison. It’s like you’re playing two totally different sports in a week — that’s what you’ve got to expect now. We have no idea what the weather conditions are going to be like but it doesn’t matter — what matters is that you’re ready.
“That means everyone working hard, putting in an honest shift from one end of the field to the other, tackling hard but with discipline — everyone doing what they’re supposed to do. That’s all that’s asked of us.”
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