Middletown (Armagh) v Mount Leinster Rangers (Carlow), Croke Park, Sat (7.15pm)
IT’S hard to remember when there was a more unique pairing in an All-Ireland final in either code at any grade. But an intermediate hurling final between Armagh and Carlow club champions is a reflection on the phenomenal work and progress being made by hurling in what are traditional football strongholds and guarantees a special atmosphere at Croke Park this Saturday night.
Middletown’s journey to this final has taken 10 years and began when a group of hurling enthusiasts in the club got together and formed a 10 year pan that started out with an U12 Feile team they worked their way up from division four and got to five Feile finals in a row.
The result is a team with an average age of 23 passionate about hurling and confident in their own ability.
Never was this more evident than in the semi-final where they were up against Effin from Limerick who were unbackable favourites until they met the Orchard County club men.
“There has been definitely a lot of work going on trying to improve the hurling and Paul Kelly (Armagh hurling board chairman) set out plans restructuring hurling in the county and set out plans and getting coaches involved, going around the primary schools and it seems to be working. There are a lot of good under-age teams coming up, minors and U21s have all got to Ulster finals and if we can keep them coming up we’ll have a decent senior team.
“I would say Effin did underestimate us. A lot of people around the country or even up North were saying an Armagh team beating a Limerick team shouldn’t be happening in hurling. A lot of people underestimated us but we watched them play, and we were all confident that we could beat them and luckily enough we did,” says captain Ryan Gaffney.
Saturday will be Ryan’s third time to play in Croke Park. He was on the Armagh team that lost to Roscommon in the Nicky Rackard Cup final in 2007 but was there when they beat London in the 2009 final – a success that also inspired wider Armagh hurling fans.
“I would say it’s easier for young ones now to get involved in hurling in Armagh. Definitely the success of the senior team in the Nicky Rackard and other competitions they have done well have helped big time,” says the 25 year old.
“I go around the primary schools coaching hurling for the county board and you can definitely see that the young ones are interested in it. It seems like a big achievement to play hurling for your county as it is for the footballers.
“We’ll probably go into this the same as the Effin game and worry about our own game plan and stick to that and not worry about who you’re marking. Work hard for each other and put the effort in out on the pitch,” he adds.
Meanwhile in Carlow, things are every bit as hectic. Their captain is 32 year-old Karl Lawler.
“It’s great for hurling that this is the final. The Kilkenny’s and Corks have dominated over the last couple of years so for us to be there is brilliant. Middletown seem to be similar team to us. I notice they put up some big scores and physically look very strong. We’re looking forward to it,” he says.
Carlow also had a tough task in their semi-final where their opponents were a Robert Emmet of London team who had players from Tipp, Cork, Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford.
“We got fantastic support on the way to the final – people who hadn’t been at a game for 10 or 15 years turned up so it is fantastic for the area and gave the whole place a lift.
“Carlow hurling is coming up and this would be a nice one to get.”
“It’s a rare stage for Carlow to reach – even playing out in Croke Park. I know some of the lads have played out there with the county but at club level it is unbelievable and hard to put into words. I’ve played for the club from under age and it is very special and nice to be part of. I can’t wait for it,” he added.