Rollercoaster ride for Carroll and Coolderry

SEVEN days after their greatest ever day, the Coolderry club laid their president to rest.

On the last Sunday in November, Brian Carroll was experiencing unimaginable joy in Nowlan Park and later that night he toasted their maiden Leinster senior club triumph on a magical occasion for the village at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains in South Offaly. On the first Sunday in December, he was at a more sombre event as the funeral mass of his grandmother Angie took place. It was a week of contrasts yet amidst the poignancy, the bond that had swept Coolderry towards a provincial crown was reinforced.

“My grandmother lived for hurling and it was a big thing personally that we managed to win the Leinster championship while she was alive, so we could bring the cup to her.

“A few days after we won the final she passed away. I remember at the funeral, it meant a lot to see all the other lads in the Coolderry team there. They’d all been down in Lahinch that weekend at our wing-back Kevin Brady’s stag but I obviously hadn’t been able to go. Yet they all came back from Clare early to be at the funeral. There was a good sense of honour to it all.”

The lofty status that Carroll applies to hurling is easy to understand when his lineage is examined. His great-grandfather ‘Red’ Jack Teehan and his grandfather Jack Carroll both lined out on Offaly senior teams. Then his father Pat became the club’s most celebrated name as he garnered All-Ireland senior medals in 1981 and 1985 before he died in March 1986.

The 25th anniversary of his death has been fittingly marked by several events. Last May a senior hurling challenge was organised in Coolderry between Limerick and Offaly and at half time, Angie and Brian planted a tree in his memory. In June, the Coolderry national school officially opened the Pat Carroll Memorial Library.

Their success in claiming the county title in October and provincial honours a month later has elevated the mood in the club to an unprecedented level.

“I’ve said it a few times but hurling is more than a sport in Coolderry. It’s a hugely significant thing in people’s lives. It has given a huge lift to an awful lot of people around the area,” says Carroll. “I’d see that particularly in how the older people appreciate it. After winning back-to-back counties in Offaly, we’d a great night in the village but winning Leinster topped that. The homecoming and level of support we got was overwhelming.”

Coolderry’s achievements in 2011 embellish their rich hurling history yet they have not always measured up to those past accomplishments. They lead the way on the Offaly senior hurling roll of honour with 29 titles, yet only six of those have been accrued since 1963 and their 2004 victory ended an 18-year drought. There is a classic reason for their barren years; the once-in-a-generation greatness that Birr displayed — and for their ultimate renaissance — the flowering of underage talent.

“There’s always been a huge but very healthy rivalry between Birr and Coolderry. When I first started on the club senior team, you were running into top-class Birr sides but we matured as a team over time. It’s all bred from underage success.

“The 1990s were our only decade without winning an Offaly senior title but we won the Féile in 1996 and got to the semi-final in the community games. We won three minors between 1999 and 2001, and three U21s between 2000 and 2002. So we knew it was in us to be successful, it was just getting it out.”

That sense of underachievement had prevailed in Carroll’s third-level hurling exertions as well. Carroll completed his PhD in maths education in UL this year and is now teaching in St Mary’s CBS in Portlaoise. He had been traversing the N52 to the UL campus in Castletroy for eight years in search of a Fitzgibbon Cup title and last March the Holy Grail was finally achieved.

“It was a long time coming,” laughs Carroll. “It was becoming a running joke that once I left college they’d win it as in the last year UL won the Fitzgibbon in 2002, I had dropped out of college and couldn’t play..

“It’s been a hugely significant competition in my career. It’s a level above U21 and club, and for some players it’s the pinnacle as they won’t play with that many quality players again.

“You see inter-county managers sometimes diminishing it but I found that it got me up to speed early in the year both in the hurling and physical training that was done.”

2011 brought its setbacks as well. A troublesome ankle was one of a succession of injuries that perturbed him while Offaly’s senior championship campaign provided a diet of the moral victories that Carroll abhors. Still the vibes emanating from the initial meetings with new boss Ollie Baker have been positive and he is relishing the chance to work with the Clare legend next season.

But Carroll is hopeful that work will be delayed. Coolderry have an All-Ireland semi-final date with Gort on February 19 and are keen to pen another chapter to their hurling tale. The sense of dejection they felt at being ousted by Westmeath kingpins Raharney on the Leinster stage last year helped sharpen their focus this season and was reflected in the professionalism of their victories over seasoned outfits Ballyboden St-Enda’s and Oulart-the-Ballagh.

“We felt we let ourselves down last year but sorted that this year,” says Carroll. “It’s brilliant to be still training with the club at this time of year and we’ve a top manager over us in Ken Hogan. Gort are a serious outfit who’ve already beaten the reigning All-Ireland champions Clarinbridge.

But while it might be great in 20 years’ time to think of winning Leinster, it’ll leave a sour taste if it ends now. That’s what’s driving us on.”

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