Lengthy Spells Without Success for Athy after Glory Days of the 20s, 30s and 40s

The article below was written by Kildaregaa365.com’s Richard Commins and appeared in the Kildare Nationalist published on 17th October. It looks at the history of county football finalists Athy.

Athy’s impact on the playing fields of Kildare was a slow-burn.

Considering they were affiliated from the start in 1887, had a good population in the town and its hinterland and built facilities to rival the best in Ireland, they seemed to dawdle along for their first half-century.

The fact that it was a garrison town full of “soldiers and public houses” probably paid a large part in it, although they did win a Junior county title in 1907.

Still, the town’s GAA links were strong with Geraldine Park, their home on the Dublin Road since 1905, hosting the All Ireland finals of 1906 and 1907.

It was 1923 before they even made a county senior final and that was somewhat ignominious as they went down 2-5 to 0-0 to Naas. It was reported that “the performance of the Athy Jazz Band, who paraded in fancy dress, was more memorable than that of the team”.

For the first time since the opening championship of 1888, a team had failed to score in the county final. It hasn’t happened since either.

At least the Barrowsiders put up a battle in the 1926 and 1927 finals before a very young team went down to Caragh (3-4 to 3-3) and Kildare’s Round Towers (2-6 to 1-5). Mick Mahon and Tommy Germaine were key figures for Athy.

Athy were back with another youthful team in 1933 and at the fourth time of asking the break-through came. Experienced Rathangan were favourites but Athy were credited with using the wings to great effect and came out on top by five points (2-6 to 1-4).

Athy had to come from behind to win with Mick Mannion and Tom Mulhall landing the key scores with Paul Matthews and Jim Fox prominent at midfield and Tarman Cunningham and Cheviot Doyle also prominent.

The Nationalist didn’t forget the “Gaels who stepped into the breach and turned back the tide of Anglicisation” to keep the flag flying in the dark days. For the next fourteen years Athy would dine regularly at the top table.

Further finals in the 1930’s resulted in wins against Raheens (after a replay) in 1934 and Sarsfields in 1937. Matthews late equalising goal saved Athy against Raheens and Mulhall’s 0-5 added to goals from Bernard Dunne and Mannion gave the southerners victory in the second game.

The Sarsfields final was a disappointing affair on a rain-sodden pitch with Athy’s superior stamina and speed crucial in their comeback from an early five-point deficit to be ahead by five by half-time and six at the finish.

Full-back Tom Kelly was “almost impenetrable” while Richard Donovan beside him was described as playing a plucky game despite his (un-named) disability! Mulhall kept Sarsfields busy with his placed balls.  His brother Pat joined him in the forward line on a team that was much-changed from the side which won the final only four years earlier. Only the elder Mulhall, Matthews, Dunne and Kelly were on board in 1933.

Matthews, a Louth man who reputedly hadn’t seen a football before being taught the game in Athy, goalie Patrick “Cuddy” Chanders and sharpshooter Mulhall were Kildare regulars in those days but Chanders became disillusioned with the game having been dropped for the 1935 All Ireland final against Cavan.

Stephen Rochford wasn’t the first All-Ireland manager to tinker disastrously with the netminder position. Kildare replaced Chanders, who hadn’t conceded a goal that campaign, with James Maguire who had never played in goal before, and he conceded three goals as they lost the final.

The early 1940’s brought a great rivalry with Carbury and the teams played three finals (’41,’42, ’46). Athy had won a minor title in 1937 with a goal from Munsie Purcell, the youngest player on the team. The fact that a Celbridge car had forgotten four of their players may have been a factor. How do you not notice four players missing from a car?

Carbury held a slight upper hand in those final meetings with Athy’s one victory coming in the 1942 final. Reports of the day suggested the inexperience of Athy and their newfound neglect of wing play were key factors in them only securing the one title. Wing play was obviously considered a big game-changer long before the current Dublin team started hugging side-lines.

The likes of Tadhg Brennan, Pat Mulhall, Matt Murray, John Rochford, Tom Wall and Joe Gibbons were prominent on the Athy sides of that era. Donovan was in goal by the time of the 1946 final.

It’s hard to fathom their famine that followed. It was to be 32 years before they graced final day again and they dropped to intermediate between 1967 and 1974.

A contributing factor to their return to senior ranks was the great work at underage and schools level of the likes of Ted Wynne and Gerry O’Sullivan.

Athy CBS produced a great team in 1973 and seven Athy players back-boned the Kildare minor panel that reached the All-Ireland final that year.

The return of sixties Kildare stalwart Mick Carolan to the team was another big factor.

Athy won the Intermediate in 1974 and then reached the senior final of 1978 only for an experienced Raheens to crush them with an eleven-point win.

Nine years later the 45-year famine ended though as underdogs Athy beat Johnstownbridge by six points. Eamonn Henry was man-of-the-match while Laois manager Bobby Miller, Colm Moran and Anthony McLoughlin were prominent.

Athy were producing plenty of county footballers at this time. McLoughlin, Moran and Sean McGovern backboned Lilywhite teams of the ‘80s.

Athy slumbered again though for another 25 years and a final hammering by Clane in 1995 didn’t offer encouragement.

The current decade of course has seen a revival and is already their most successful since around the war years, with brilliant under-age teams back-boning the winning 2011 champions and 2015 finalists.

Still there’s an itch that needs scratching, a sense of under-achievement given the talent available. Sunday will help define the legacy of the latest crop of Barrowsiders.