Niall Gilligan still going strong (at 40)

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

And so, Niall Gilligan goes again. This evening, in a Cusack Park dressing room in Ennis, ‘Gilly’ will lace ‘em up again, pull on the saffron and blue of Sixmilebridge and begin his 23rd season of senior club hurling.

The smell of deep heat, the feeling of tension in the air, the “excitement and giddiness” afterwards if they can get one over on old rivals Clarecastle. That’s why he’s back, at 40 years of age, for another crack.

“The priority is to try and win the first round of the championship and get the ‘Bridge into the next round,” he says.

“When you go into the dressing room and see the tension in the room, it’s about focusing on the job to do. If we do that, at 8.30 on Saturday evening, I love the excitement and giddiness after, the craic and going with a few of the lads for a few pints after.

“I was always that way, that’s looked on now in modern inter-county as almost taboo but that was a part of it. Lads are retiring now at 28 or 29 years of age and I don’t know have they enjoyed what they’ve done in their careers. It’s not professional, we give it our all and do our very best but when it’s over, it’s over.”

For Gilligan, it’s not over just yet.

It was back in 1995 when he was listed on a Sixmilebridge team sheet for the very first time, among the subs for the opening round county championship fixture with Newmarket.

It was a campaign that brought Gilligan and the ‘Bridge all the way to Croke Park in March 1996.

Against Sarsfields in the All-Ireland Club semi-final in February, he made his first appearance off the bench.

In the final victory over Dunloy, he scored three points as a 19-year-old after coming on.

Remarkably, when Gilligan played for Clare against Tipperary in the 1997 All-Ireland final victory, he’d started a full match for his county before club. And, as things stand, his club career haul is the envy of many - five county senior titles, four Clare Cups (League), two Munster club medals and that 1996 All- Ireland win.

Gilligan smiles: “There are a few things – one, I’m lucky I married an accommodating wife (Deirdre), who lets me do it.

“Then, John O’Meara is a good friend and has been for the last 30 years, since I was a child. He was at me to keep doing it.

“And number three, I enjoy it. I enjoy all aspects of it, the hurling side, down around the field, the banter before training, the social side.

“We have a good social element to the team as well. We train hard but we let the hair down from time to time too. And another reason is that there’s a decent team there. We’ve won two out of the last four county finals so we have a shout at winning the championship. It doesn’t mean we’ll win it but it means you’re in contention.”

Gilligan, typically, feels a little uncomfortable with the attention his decision to continue on generated this week.

“There are lads my age on the junior B and junior C, and they’re all over the country. Some people would say you should go out on a high in a blaze of glory after winning an All-Ireland but I never played hurling for that reason.

“I’d like to think my ego would never get in the way. I could go up to Cusack Park on Saturday night and be taken off after 20 minutes. And so what? It’s not a professional sport and from that point of view, in a lot of quarters in hurling and Gaelic Football, the fun is gone out of it. You play it if you like playing it and if you don’t, you don’t.”

Niall and Deirdre have three kids – Anna (5), Michael (3) and Ellie (1). His auctioneering business is going well, too, and Gilligan also enjoys farming. There’s plenty to keep him occupied but hurling remains a vital part of his life.

“I’m down on training nights with the tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and thinking ‘feck this’ and it’s very easy to say ‘I’m gone too old’ but I was 25 and often wrecked from training too,” he says. “As you get older, that’s an easy reason to throw in the towel but there are friends of mine doing triathlons, running marathons and running up and down Croagh Patrick, or cycling 50 miles a day. Isn’t that a lot tougher than what I’m doing?”

And so, he’ll keep doing what he’s doing. Demands on Gilligan’s time, and the less-pressurised environment of club fare, means that he doesn’t necessarily go the extra mile anymore. He’ll still hit a few extra frees but Jamie Shanahan, the current Clare senior panellist, is expected to be entrusted with that responsibility on matchday. Still, better to keep the eye in, just in case.

“I’d still hit a few,” he says. “The one thing with family life is that you can’t do what you did when you were 25. It’s hard to give as much time to doing the extra little bit on your own, the ball alley or practicing the frees, or down on a Wednesday night and having a fella hit 10, 15 or 20 balls back to you. Now, you’d hope that maybe the bit of experience would get you out of corners.”

There’s very few that can match Gilligan on that score, and he’ll need to call upon it against Clarecastle.

“Anytime we play them, there’s never much in it,” he notes.

“They’re a proud and strong hurling club, like ourselves, with a great tradition.

“They don’t do much only hurling. When they pull on that black and white jersey, they’ll give it 100%.”

Gilligan also noted Ballyea’s march to an All-Ireland club final, and the fine margins involved. Last August, Ballyea needed to beat Newmarket to seal a last 12 spot in Clare but marched on from there to county and Munster honours.

“In my first year involved, 1995/96, we won the Munster Club and All-Ireland,” Gilligan recalls.

“You need a good team but there’s a huge element of luck.

“We beat Newmarket in the first round by a point, we beat Tulla by a point in the quarter-final, Scariff by a point in the final.

“Then we played the likes of Ballygunner and Sarsfields, teams with lads injured.

“You have to be in a position to take the breaks to win an All-Ireland. It’s nearly different to the inter-county championship. Clare could win an All-Ireland winning four games but with the club, and coming through Munster, you could be looking at nine or ten.”

Before the conversation ends, we thank Gilligan for his time, and offer a cheery salute: ‘See you on the Hogan Stand steps next March!’ You’d just never know.

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