A few good men
November 30, 2003
Wolfe Tones were in serious trouble going into the 2003 calendar year but the determination and endeavour of a few ensured that - against all odds - they came through intact and with reputations enhanced. Gerry Robinson reports on a remarkable tale of survival.
Considering that their junior team had virtually folded by the end of the '02 season, 2003 was a mighty year for Wolfe Tones GFC.
The first team was spectacularly resurrected and the new-look Tones made their presence felt with some excellent displays in Division Three of the all-county league. While there remains a lot of work to be done, at least the crucial first steps have been taken along the road to recovery.
By all accounts, it was a watershed year for Wolfe Tones. The club was in severe crisis by the end of 2002 and the team's demise was widely foretold. From somewhere, however, the Tones have found the resolve to stage a miraculous recovery. And the Wee County GAA scene is all the better for it!
John Gallagher, who was instrumental in the team's dramatic renaissance, admits: "It was a very positive year for the Tones. A lot of good things came out of it, but we're by no means out of the woods yet. The challenge now is to build upon what we achieved in '03 and we know it's not going to be easy."
That Wolfe Tones even managed to field a team this year was in itself a phenomenal achievement. Things were looking decidedly dodgy at the end of the previous campaign and it appeared to all the world as though the famous Drogheda club - founded in 1922 - was on the brink of extinction.
Fortunately, there were some die-hards who refused to accept such an eventuality and the work of a few has benefited so many. The club's revival comes as a boost to the entire Wee County GAA community, all of whom are thrilled to see the Tones making a fist of things.
Would crisis be too strong a word to describe the predicament the Tones were in at the start of the year? "We were in big trouble," John allows. "At the start of the year the junior team was going to be disbanded. We'd had a nightmare in 2002 and things were in disarray."
The situation was, indeed, grave. A two-page article had appeared in the Drogheda Independent highlighting the club's plight and suggesting that their first team was about to disband.
In a final attempt to save the Tones, club stalwart Mickey Kelly and the rest of the committee approached John Gallagher to see if he was interested in taking over the junior team. John had enjoyed great successes with the club at U14, U16 and minor levels but was reluctant to get involved in managing the adult team. However, he felt compelled to answer the S.O.S.
The Mayo native agreed to take charge of team affairs and immediately appointed Paddy Thornton and Noel Donnelly as his assistants/selectors.
He continues: "One things about the Wolfe Tones is that we've always had a fantastic underage set-up, from under 9 level up to minor. This year, we won the U10 Drogheda league and were beaten in the semi-final of the U11 with a great team. We were also beaten in the U12 and U14 B finals. We won the U16 league and reached the minor B final. Our U15s also had a great run.
"We host a very successful Blitz every May Bank Holiday Monday for the Noel Callaghan Cup [U12] and the Paddy Fay Cup [U9]. We had 102 young lads out for that this year and we normally have between 50 and 70 young kids out training every Thursday night, which is incredible for a junior club. So we have no problems whatsoever at underage level, but the younger lads in the club need a junior team to look up to..."
As underage coach, John led a highly talented crop to an U14 championship, an U16 league and championship double, and a minor league and B championship double. When these players came through to junior level, however, they seemed to find other interests and fell by the wayside. The new first-team manager's aim was to entice them back:
"I was approached because I had enjoyed so many successes with those players and my immediate priority was to put that team back together again. I brought in Paddy and Noel and we held a players meeting, where I got that minor team together in one room again. I told them I was going to build the Tones junior team around them, with a few older players included to provide leadership.
"We told them that if anybody didn't want to play they could leave the room. Nobody left."
It was never going to be a quick fix. Teething problems were inevitable as most of the team hadn't played junior football before (indeed, some of the lads hadn't played any football for years!). The winter league was "a disaster" - all six games were lost. At this stage, however, results were trivial. The subsidiary league was being used as a tool to get the team together. The Tones may have been losing games, but they were winning in that they were actually fielding a team...
"We knew the tide would turn because we have the talent," says the team manager. "We have five lads here who played county minor. John Gallagher, Andrew Farrell and John Kelly all played against Dublin in the Leinster minor championship at Parnell Park two years ago; Stephen Craig was a sub; and Barry Kelly went on to play county minor the following year. Kevin Bull is another fantastic footballer we managed to coax back into the fold. Our main task was to get them all together again and we were delighted to achieve that."
Considering that it was practically a new team, the league went especially well: "We had an unbeaten run of five games - four wins and a draw - on the trot and that hadn't happened here in ten years. We finished fourth in the league, which was a wonderful achievement. If we'd won our last four games we could've actually won the league...
"The competition ran straight into the soccer season, which is a problem for us, as many of the lads are dual players and Barry Kelly and Kevin Bull are both signed to Drogheda United.
"All in all, though, it was a great year by our standards. Mickey Kelly and the committee put in a tremendous year's work and Paddy Fanning, who's chairman of the minor club, also put in a great year. We have some great people guiding the club's fortunes.
"Martin Cassidy has been with the Tones for ten years without any success and he came back into the fold as captain to lead the young fellas. He's only 32, but he once trained these young lads and now he's playing with them! The future is bright if we can keep this team together."
Even though the club didn't actively block any players from transferring at the end of the 2002 season, nobody left. "The tradition has been here for so many years and the County Board made it clear that they didn't want to lose the club at any cost. They've been extremely supportive and we appreciate that."
In reality things could hardly have gone better than they did in 2003. Miracles were neither achieved nor expected. John enthuses: "We saved the club. We got most of the minor team back together again and that's the most successful team in the history of Wolfe Tones. Our disciplinary record was also superb. We won matches ... and we also played great football.
"There were a lot of good teams in there and they didn't want to come into Drogheda to play us. In general, we can look back and say we're very happy with how the 2003 season went."
The biggest disappointment was having to forfeit the last two games of the league, but with the season dragging on so late the Tones lost their momentum - the manager actually found himself playing alongside his prodigies in the two games preceding that! "We were on a massive high but there was a big gap in the fixtures after we were knocked out of the championship and things seemed to crumble after that," John notes.
Tones were effectively out of the running for the JFC when they lost the first of their two Group B outings to Westerns at Dunleer on July 11th. They put in a vastly improved performance against Young Irelands at Drogheda, only losing by four points, 2-11 to 0-13.
"We didn't play against Westerns and we were gone once we lost that one. We had a strong side out and fancied our chances but just didn't perform on the night. It was disappointing because I don't think there was a whole lot in the championship this year and it might never be as easy to win it again.
"We beat both Westerns and Glen Emmets at home in the league and were only narrowly beaten by Dowdallshill when missing a number of key players. But in the end lack of sharpness cost us in the championship. Westerns had Tommy Dowd in and that made a big difference to them ... bringing in an outside coach is an option we should consider for the future."
John took on the manager's job on a three-year term. There's still a long way to go but he's happy with the progress that was made in '03. He admits: "When I was appointed I didn't particularly want the post because I prefer to work with the kids, but if you don't have a junior team the kids don't have anything to look up to. I was able to say to the U16s, U14s and U11s 'Come and take a look at the junior team who went unbeaten for four years at underage level and are already playing junior football for the Tones - this is what you can achieve'. If there was no junior team, the young lads would have nothing to aspire towards.
"The second reason I took the job was because I missed the lads. It galled me to see them not playing any football at all. With the exception of a few older lads, it's a very young team, mainly 19- and 20-year-olds. We have young players in key positions down the middle and they're definitely getting a lot more experience than players of the same age in other clubs, so that should work in our favour somewhere down the line.
"Most of them were playing adult football for the first time in 2003, but things will be different next year. They'll have a year's junior football behind them and the new challenge will be to keep them together..."
John expects to name as many as four of this year's minor team in next year's junior side. He continues: "The Tones were going nowhere last year and now we've begun to turn the corner. We can't be getting carried away though. All we've done is build a foundation for going forward. It's a solid foundation but now the real work begins because expectations are suddenly higher.
"It was great to have the crowds up at the field again and the word spreading that the Tones were back ... not only back but playing good football. And when we went on that winning run in the league there was a serious buzz.
"Other clubs were very sporting towards us. They knew we had almost been extinct and they all told us it was good to see us back. In fact, I was taken aback by the tremendous amount of goodwill that was shown towards us. There were so many people on our side ... it was very encouraging.
"We also received a lot of goodwill from the County Board, and in particular from Pat Toner, who was a great help during the year.
"The facilities we have are second to none in the county. Our groundsman Paddy Kelly puts in a huge amount of work and his efforts mean that all we have to do is turn out for the game. Everything else is looked after ... without Paddy, it wouldn't be possible.
"We have a fabulous pitch and dressing-rooms and we're financially sound. We also have a vast catchment area and there's every reason for optimism now the threat of disbandment has gone away."
Wolfe Tones are back and the recuperation is gathering pace.
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