O’Donovan Rossa’s experienced goalkeeper Alan Foley chats to KIERAN McCARTHY about hurling in the club, the ongoing battle for numbers, and Friday’s county final
‘I’M not the oldest,’ he laughs, ‘Shane Crowley, we call him Shane Senior, is older than me again – he’ll de delighted I mentioned that!’
Alan Foley is 42 years old. But we’ve already gathered that he is not the oldest togging out on the O’Donovan Rossa junior hurling team that’s gunning for county junior B hurling championship honours this Friday night at Páirc Uí Rinn.
Foley likes to replace the word ‘age’ with ‘experience’.
‘We’ve plenty of experience,’ he says, and this combined with the younger generation has steered the Skibbereen club back to another county hurling final.
This will be Foley’s third county junior B decider. Skibb hammered Lismire in 2004 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, a game where he scored 2-8, five from frees. Ballyclough were defeated in 2013 at Páirc Uí Rinn. White’s Cross this weekend stand between Foley and a hat-trick of titles.
He’s not the only one chasing the treble.
Shane, Flor and Kevin Crowley are in the same boat, as are Rob Long and Kevin Cotter, all magnificent servants to Skibbereen hurling, as it continues to step out of the shadows of the club’s footballers.
Everyone knows O’Donovan Rossa is a football-first club. Hurling comes second. That presents its own challenges, especially numbers wise, so it’s easy to understand why the club dropped back down to junior B this year.
‘After we won in 2013 we went back up junior A, held our own for a bit but for the last two seasons before this we didn’t win a game in league or championship. We weren’t even competitive in the games, not getting within six or seven points of teams. That’s demoralising,’ the St Patrick’s Boys’ NS principal explains.
‘Last year we were struggling to field a team, we’d barely have 15 fellas at times, it’s hard to motivate fellas, especially younger fellas, when they know they’ll get beaten.’
The hurlers held a meeting on December 27th last when the majority decided that the best decision was to regrade to junior B and build again.
Foley’s conscious of the need to future-proof hurling in the club.
‘I’m 42 but I’m not even the oldest fella starting. We have a lot of fellas in their late 30s, so the thinking was to drop to junior B, get back enjoying hurling and trying to get a few young fellas hurling again. We want to prioritise the younger fellas.
‘We don’t have enough of our own young fellas coming through the club at the moment. That’s what we have to target, to develop and give those who want to play hurling the chance to.
‘We want to get to the stage where, for example, that I can happily hand over the mantle to the next fella. We love our hurling but we are really doing it too to keep hurling going in the club – and we’d love to be able to hand over to the next generation and know it’s in good hands.’
Good hands are something Foley knows all about.
He started out as an underage goalkeeper growing up in Ballincollig, stayed between the posts when he won two All-Irelands with Mary I when he was in college, and when he landed in Skibbereen in October 1996 to start work as a teacher, he saw the chance to venture further outside the square than before.
‘When I came to Skibb I wanted to play outfield, and I never had before because I was always in goal, but I got a place in the forwards until age came against me again around ten years ago,’ he says.
His 2-8 in the 2004 county final highlight his effectiveness, and even now he is still lethal from placed balls. Foley finished with 1-4 in the semi-final win against Randal Óg, a man-of-the-match performance at both ends of the field.
It’s in goal where he is most comfortable, and has been from an an early age. His late father Chris was a big hurling man, hailing from hurling land in Newcestown.
‘When dad came home from work we’d go out for a puck-around, never a kick-around. He’d be leathering balls at me and I liked stopping shots,’ Foley smiles.
Hurling was always the first love, and while pitch and putt saw him step back from the GAA in his late teens for a bit, he didn’t stay away too long.
‘I came down to Skibbereen not knowing anybody and the best way to get to know people was to get stuck into the GAA, so I started hurling the following season (1997),’ he explains, but he did spend his summers in Tragumna, a home away from home in many ways as his mother Breda (nee O’Shea) is from Skibb.
It didn’t take too long for Foley to become a mainstay of the club’s hurling set-up, and while he’s not planning on hanging up his boots any time soon, he would like to see a successor put his hand up.
‘I’d love to see a goalkeeper come up through the club,’ he says.
‘We have no one at the moment. We don’t even had a sub keeper. One of the outfield fellas would have to go in if something happened to me.
‘It would be great to have someone that I can help train for a year or two, and hand over the job.’
To attract more young players to hurling is key to its survival in Skibbereen.
What helps is success and big days out – and they don’t come much bigger than a county final, Páirc Uí Rinn the venue this Friday.
‘Bringing a Skibb team to Páirc Uí Rinn for a county final is a massive experience and it’s great for the young lads on the team to have this chance; they’ll remember this forever,’ he says.
‘A few of us won a county final in the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh back in 2004 and it would be great for the younger lads to have memories like that too, albeit in Páirc Uí Rinn.’
Another county final win could also encourage more youngsters to get involved – that’s the hope.
‘The big aim is to get the young fellas to want to play hurling in the club and show them that they can play both hurling and football. Both can co-exist. Look at Bandon, look at Newcestown, it is hard but it’s doable. Those clubs have a history and culture for dual playing but we don’t have that yet. That’s the hope, that the two can work side by side,’ Foley explains, and the father of two has enjoyed the warmth towards Skibbereen hurling since they qualified for the final.
At Skibbereen Show on Thursday, locals wanted to talk about hurling and the county final.
‘We don’t often get talked about around Skibbereen town but people are chatting about the game and there’s a buzz, that’s a great boost for the hurling side of the club and the fellas involved.’
He’s confident too that the Rossas can finish the job.
‘I know we’ve been up and down between A and B – but we are hurling at our level this year, junior B. We’re not trouncing any teams. They’re tight games. We are a championship team too, we’re well able to play in the big games.’
Similar to 2013 when they dropped down to junior B and went all the way to a county final in their first season there, momentum is behind Skibb’s hurlers right now – and they don’t want to pass up on the chance to keep O’Donovan Rossa hurling in the headlines.