In a year when Galway brought one great famine to an end, it was fitting that the 2017 senior hurling final should also bring closure to one of the great internal hungers.
Liam Mellows hadn’t laid hands on the Tom Callanan Cup since 1970, a 47-year gap that also incorporates 33 years without a title for a Galway city club since Castlegar’s 1984 triumph.
There was genuine delight then for the neutrals yesterday – among a crowd that must have been in the region of 8,000 – that this particular itch had been scratched.
As dusk rolled in on Pearse Stadium there were still knots of green and white clad Mellows supporters on the field taking in an absorbing final and the impact it will potentially have on the game in the city.
It was full-blooded, hard-hitting, exactly what you would have expected from one of the most competitive county championships in a year when the All-Ireland title rests there.
Liam Mellows were a year and three days into their journey since Louis Mulqueen, fresh from five years by David Fitzgerald’s side in Clare, arrived to bring their dream to fruition.
Their starting point was December 1, 2016; some 134 training sessions later, by Mulqueen’s count, the job was done.
“We took a six-week break in the middle,” recalled Mulqueen. “I was trying to get the balance right. I had learned a little bit. I took Clarinbridge one year there in 2006. The summer break in Galway affects you. Everyone goes off to America, they take jobs. We got two championships through it.
“Getting a Galway county title medal is like hen’s teeth. The likes of Aonghus (Callanan) and David (Collins). It was their one shot, one chance and they had to take it. Fair play, both of them stood up as leaders on the pitch with everybody else out there.”
Ultimately the composure they showed for all three goals steered them in the right direction.
Gort, coming off the back of defeat in last year’s final, carried 1/2 favouritism heavily at times, but early on they looked the sharper team.
They were driven on by the accuracy of Aidan Helebert and Kaelen Higgins, who operated in a roving attacking role, and the imposing Albert Mullins.
It was Callanan’s 19th-minute goal which instilled the belief in Mellows that they could upset the odds.
Kevin Lee and Jack Hastings combined to put Callanan in but even then he had much work to do as he cut in along the end line. Met by a challenge, he managed to squeeze a shot from the tightest of angles to beat Gavin Lally for a 1-4 to 0-6 lead.
They were never headed after that and while Gort got back level, 1-5 to 0-8, Mellows finished the half with 1-2, their second goal a beauty from Tadhg Haran. He had earlier converted two sidelines, but this time used his blistering pace to clear the cover and pick his spot on 31 minutes for a 2-7 to 0-8 lead.
Gort made quick inroads on the restart, however, and soon were breathing down the city side’s necks, just one point adrift – courtesy of some frees that didn’t require much contact to be awarded, it must be said.
For a game that was heavy with big collisions – Greg Lally’s on Adrian Morrissey in the 46th minute being arguably the most shuddering – it was an unusual departure.
Crucially Helebert was off cue with a free and then an effort from play, either of which would have brought them back level had they been converted.
That hit earned Morrissey a free which he slotted over and, generally, he came up with the answers as the half progressed.
Within minutes Liam Mellows had their third goal, Haran the provider with Conor Kavanagh doing remarkably well to retain possession and then wriggle his way into position to strike for what was ultimately the insurance score and a five-point lead again.
It stretched to seven by the 54th minute, with Gort down to 14 men by then as Michael Mullins was red-carded for an incident that left Collins requiring treatment.
Collins picked up an early yellow and was fortunate to avoid another in the second-half, but when it came to shutting this game down his block on Higgins near the end was a defiant moment.
Richie Cummins got a late goal to reduce the lead to three for Gort, but Mellows were able to manage the game to a conclusion that sparked joyous celebration.
For Mulqueen, who was in opposition to a fellow selector under Fitzgerald, Michael Browne, it was, he acknowledged, “one of my biggest achievements as a project”.
He recalled how a commitment from Collins after his departure from the Galway hurling squad convinced him to take the job on.
“He gave up playing for Galway, he decided he had enough of the county scene and I knew if I had that man behind the team as a leader we were going in the right direction.
“I love it,” he beamed, so much so that he even gave two tickets to his beloved Phil Collins in the Aviva Stadium to the winners of a crossbar challenge they held during the summer. Mark Hughes and Sean Morrissey were the winners, but weren’t told what the prize was.
“We went up to it and I stood them in the Aviva. Mark didn’t know who Phil Collins was. He didn’t know who Blondie was, but he said his dad did. I didn’t realise he was only 19. That’s the youth!” said Mulqueen.
“The project appealed to me, it appealed that they had enthusiasm, they had desire to win. Today was the day that they had to stand up and perform in a county final.
“Youth hadn’t won, youth hadn’t actually stood up in a county final. Today was dodgy, to see what way it would go. I rang every one of them yesterday just to make sure the mindset was right, I knew we were ready.”
Scorers – Liam Mellows: A Morrissey 0-8 (7fs), T Haran 1-2 (0-2sls), A Callanan 1-1, C Kavanagh 1-0, R Elwood 0-1.
Gort: A Helebert 0-10 (7fs), R Cummins 1-0, G Lally 0-2 (2fs), K Higgins, A Mullins, Jason Grealish all 0-1 each.
Liam Mellows: K Walsh; M Hughes, M Conneely, S Morrissey; C Reilly, D Collins, S Barrett; K Lee, J Hastings; C Hynes, A Callanan, R Elwood; A Morrissey, T Haran, C Kavanagh. Subs: J Forde for Hynes (57), J Kenny for Callanan (60), C Elwood for Kavanagh (62).
Gort: G Lally; M McMahon, A Coen, M Cummins; Jack Grealish, G Lally, P Lally; S Og Linnane, A Harte; M Mullins, A Helebert, Jason Grealish; R Cummins, A Mullins, K Higgins. Subs: J Commins for A Mullins (49), N Forde for Cummins (53), P Killilea for Jason Grealish (55), W Walsh for Linnane (57), K Killilea for Helebert (60).
Ref – C Browne