By Peter Nolan
Three Sundays ago, New York’s footballers gave Sligo all they could handle before eventually faltering in their grab for glory in the All-Ireland Championship competition. This Sunday at Gaelic Park, it is the hurlers’ turn and recent history suggests that the home side have a legitimate chance.
Manager Kieran O’Sullivan certainly thinks so.
“We would be quite confident,” O’Sullivan said after a recent Gaelic Park training session as the team prepared to face Antrim in the Ulster Senior Hurling seminfinal. In fact, the Limerick man believes that the recent switch from Van Cortland Park to Gaelic Park has been a boon to training.
“Training at Gaelic Park has really brought the team together,” he said.
Indeed, the squad appeared sharp and, perhaps just as important, relaxed at Thursday night’s session.
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Trainer Anthony Gaughan has the panel looking fit and fresh and the long winter and spring training has the skill level high. New York stalwarts like the captain, Tom Simms, fullback Owen Cummins, and the versatile John Madden combined with and battled more recent additions like Tadgh and Jon O’Callaghan, Martin Finn and Paddy Barry, among others, in a lively practice match with much at stake. Much at stake because Manager O’Sullivan contends that “this team is not picked, these lads are fighting for places.”
Antrim, of course, have long been the kingpins of Ulster hurling, as their 40 Ulster titles attest. Antrim, however, have the same number of All-Irelands as New York — zero. This year’s edition recently fell to Laois in the Div. 2 Final of the National Hurling League, 1-20 to 2-14. Antrim weren’t too broken up about the loss, though, as coach Dinny Cahill has been pointing his side toward this Ulster Championship Semifinal.
“Winning the league,” he said, “would have been a bonus.”
Antrim boast a balanced attack, one that saw seven players enter the scoresheet against Laois. Full forward Gregory O’Kane, with 1-3, impressed New York Manager O’Sullivan and Peter Dalton will likely be deployed to limit O’Kane’s contribution. O’Sullivan also mentioned wing forwards Watson and Delargy as players warranting special attention.
Center back Ronan Donnelly and full back Kieran Kelly anchored the defense against Laois, although the Leinster side’s tally of 1-20 suggests that Antrim can be scored on. New York also have a secret weapon in their camp in Kevin McKay. The Antrim native is perhaps the best source of information available to O’Sullivan and his selectors, John McHugh and John Kelly, having played with six of the current Antrim team.
The 25-year-old McKay finds the thought of playing against his native county to be “very strange.”
“I never thought I’d wear another jersey,” he said. “So I have some mixed emotions.”
McKay played minor and U-21 with Antrim, captaining the U-21 side in 1998. He faces the possibility of going head to head with his “best mate,” Aiden Delargy.
McKay arrived in New York just over a year ago, catching the eye of the selection committee with his play for Kilkenny.
“It will be strange to see friends of mine in the stands wearing Antrim jerseys when I’m playing against them,” McKay said.
Still, McKay said he feels that he will be representing his club, Shane O’Neill’s, as he lines out for his adopted “county,” a turn of events of which “my family is very proud.”
Without a doubt New York’s most accomplished player is Tipperary’s John Madden. The Lorrah man has two All-Ireland Senior Hurling medals to his name, earned with Tipperary in 1989 and ’91. An automatic selection with the New York team since is arrival in 1993, Madden can play anywhere but is usually found around the middle of the field. Recently, Madden has been playing in the forwards after spending most of his New York tenure in the number six, although he is likely at start at midfield on Sunday.
Having played at the highest level his sport has to offer, the skillful Madden is an invaluable resource for the home team. The Gotham squad take inspiration from last year’s Ulster Championship match versus Down, also played at Gaelic Park, that saw New York fall short by just one point.
“To be honest, I thought we were hard done by,” O’Sullivan said of some controversial refereeing decisions that went against the home team.
Although no team has been announced, Dave Simms and Finbarr Flood are battling for the goalkeeper’s jersey. Dalton looks set at full back, with Owen Cummins the probable center back. Madden may be partnered at midfield by Paddy Barry, who can also play in the half back line. Bobby Ryan and Martin Finn look set at Nos. 11 and 14, respectively, and Jonathan O’Callaghan will start somewhere up front, probably at wing forward. Captain Tom Simms will also probably play up front. The rest of the team will be hard picked, with numerous players pressing their cases.
The New York brain trust also learned from their football counterpart’s performance. Having Gaelic Park at their disposal has been a plus.
“The footballers showed that if you play with heart, you can have a sporting chance,” O’Sullivan said.
One thing New York teams are rarely accused of is lacking heart. Antrim, of course, will not want to be the first team to lose to New York in the Championship, so another exciting match is certainly in the offing.