Drumree may be better known as a football club in a county so driven by all things big ball, but the small south Meath club is making strides in hurling to match those made on the football fields over the past few summers. And David Troy, who capped his year by playing a central role in Meath’s obliteration of Carlow in the All-Ireland Intermediate Hurling final, believes the coming years may witness the establishment of Drumree as a force to be reckoned with - in both codes.
For David Troy, the year could hardly have ended any better. Having returned to the Meath hurling panel after an absence of three years for the latter stages of the county’s first year scraping at the upper echelons of the sport, in Division 1 of the NHL, he managed to nail down a place at centrefield as the team strolled to the All-Ireland Intermediate Hurling championship semi-final with a facile victory over Carlow at Roscommon in early September. But while the victory marked a satisfactory end to a promising year for Meath hurling, Troy knows that Meath must now complete the leap to the next level, and leave behind forever such a haven for second-raters as the intermediate championship, if the progress currently being made is to have any lasting impact in the county.
In that context undoubtedly Meath’s most cherished achievement in 2001 should be the consolidation of their Division 1 status for the 2002 campaign.
"It is good to win any All-Ireland," says Troy, "but we have to be aiming higher, to look past this open section intermediate championship. The first year up in Division 1 really gave us a taste for it. Playing against all the top teams, you’re really learning and improving yourself in every game, so we’re all looking forward to the league starting up again. Beating Kerry during the summer [in an earlier round of the All-Ireland intermediate championship] was a big deal, because they have been our nemesis for years. That gave us a real boost, and next year teams like Galway, Clare and Limerick will be coming to Navan, and if games like those can’t inspire us to play well and attract an interest within the county, then nothing will."
Talk of All-Ireland medals and big teams and Division 1 is a far cry from the beginning of the year,when Troy was yet to make his return to the panel. He explains: "I was a bit surprised to be honest, when I was called up to the panel before the Clare game, but I’m delighted I made it and stayed there for the rest of the year. I got a run for the last 10 minutes of the win against Dublin, and then we got a bit of a hiding against Galway. But after that we played Offaly, and we only lost by four or five points. We could’ve won if things had gone our way a bit. Playing against that type of team, you could only improve, and it’ll be great to do it again next year; hopefully we’ll be able to make a bit of a run in the championship as well, because Laois got to a Leinster semi-final this year, and were not beaten all that much by Wexford on the day."
David was part of the Meath set-up for one of the most disheartening experiences the county’s hurling half has been compelled to endure in recent years. Back in 1998, Meath were fixed to play Offaly at Croke Park in a Leinster senior championship football-hurling double-bill, and it was an all-too-rare opportunity for the county’s hurlers to take the stage in front of a sizeable crowd. Added to that, the hurlers, so often typecast as the whipping boys of the province, went into the match with many hoping for a bold showing - and more - against Offaly, expectations having risen out of a successful league campaign. An hour and a hammering later, all the good work had been drained from the Meath set-up, the demoralisation only increased by the fact that the reverse had taken place before the eyes of so many of those who saw hurling as no more than a necessary evil within the county’s GAA superstructure.
This was Troy’s first year back on the panel since then, but he believes the talent exists for Meath to take that elusive step to the next rung of hurling’s ladder. "There are some excellent players in the county, who would be good enough for a lot of teams in the country. Fergus McMahon was a huge addition to us when he came in for the intermediate final. He had been away in the US for a while, and only came back the Thursday before the game, but he came in at centre forward and was brilliant.
He was super against Kerry in the relegation play-off earlier in the year as well; he’s an unbelievable hurler. And personally speaking, it was great playing at midfield beside Nicky Horan; he’s a class apart, I’m there to do a job, and leave Nicky free to concentrate on going forward and getting the scores. Anto O’Neill is brilliant as well; he missed the intermediate final because he was away on his honeymoon, but he is so strong and steady, very few lads ever get the better of him. There are a good few other players as well, Charlie Keena, Deccie Murray, Kevin Dowd, and Neville Reilly are all super hurlers, and Mark Gannon is a great goalkeeper."
At club level with Drumree, where he usually lines out at either midfield at centre forward, David was very disappointed by the way the year petered to a close, after a bright opening that saw his side sprint from the blocks in the first round. "It started off brilliantly," he recalls. "We hammered Athboy in the first game; they were missing a couple and it was probably our best game all year. We beat Donaghmore /Ashbourne by a couple of points, and beat Trim well. They were weak enough, though, and then we were a bit lucky to get a draw against Kilskyre. Then we had to play Athboy again, and only drew after leading by eight points at half time. We fell asleep a bit during the second half of that one. The following week [in the replay], nothing went right for us, really, we had two men sent off in the first half and were eight points down at half-time. We managed to get it back to within a goal but couldn’t get it; a very disappointing end."
All the more so, after the club had made it all the way to the intermediate championship final the previous summer, losing out to Boardsmill ("I think we froze a bit on the day"). On the back of that run, confidence was high among the players, something that was reflected in the expectations now placed on them - by themselves and others. The only way to better a runners-up spot was to be winners; anything else would be heralded, in relative terms, as a failure. Troy, though acknowledging the disappointment of this year, anticipates that better days will follow in this particular part of south Meath, in both hurling and football.
"We have a few Meath minors coming through from St. Martins [the umbrella under which Dunshaughlin and Drumree combine at underage level], lads like Sean White, Seamus Wallace and John Crimmins, who’s a brother of David [Dunshaughlin forward and Meath senior football panellist].
Other young lads as well, like Christopher Doyle and Johnny Gilsenan, have won everything at underage level, so if we can keep them all with us and help them through, they’ll all be a big addition to the club over the next few years, and hopefully we can make the breakthrough and take it up to senior inside the next year or two." The ambitions in the big ball code should be no different, he says. Citing the openness of the middle grade and the fact that the club’s midfielder, John Cullinane, this year made the breakthrough at county level to join Drumree’s long-established representative, Evan Kelly, Troy believes the club, junior football champions in 1998, can recover after a disappointing summer and go on to reproduce the form of 2000, which saw them ruffle many feathers in only their second year as an intermediate side.
"We have been knocking at the door for a few years now, in both football and hurling, and I can really see both teams playing in the senior championship within the next three or four years," ventures the 26-year-old landscaper, who usually dons the full back’s jersey when football is the concern. "A bit like the hurling, the football this year was very disappointing. We did very well last year in the intermediate championship, had a great run, but this year has been a bit of a disaster, and we were lucky not to be relegated in the end.
"But the intermediate grade is so open that any one of about eight or nine teams could win it in any given year, if they manage to build up a head of steam. We have a good strong panel of players now; if we can get everybody fit and working together, and with two lads playing great stuff for Meath now, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be pushing to win it in the next couple of years. The one thing we have to improve is our record against the relegated teams. We always seem to lose against the team who comes down, and we’ll have to get a lot harder in ourselves to improve on that next summer."
As much as he undoubtedly loves his football, it’s not overly difficult to ascertain what is David’s favourite game. "I love the football, but hurling is definitely the number one. It’s just a better game," he says, with conviction. And hurling could be even better in Meath, he argues, if the strengths of the underage game in the county were adapted for the adult grades.
"The structure in Meath up to under 18 is absolutely brilliant, with clubs like Kilmessan, Trim and O’Mahony’s all producing loads of good young players; St. Martins here is a great club for underage hurling as well, some of the lads, with both St Martins and Drumree, like Sean White, Michael Wallace and Willie Shanley, all have a great knowledge of hurling and put in phenomenal effort and time. When it gets to under 21 and senior, though, it’s often hard to keep lads interested. There are a lot of distractions, and football is so much the number one in Meath that it definitely takes its toll. There are plenty lads playing senior football in Meath who would easily have been good enough to play senior hurling."
For the time being, however, the hand dealt must suffice, particularly when it comes to the second rung of Meath hurling. Drumree’s hurling club only came into existence a little over a decade ago, and has made solid progress since to be on the threshold of making the breakthrough to the top flight.
With "luck, perseverance and a couple of extra players", that dream may soon become a reality for Drumree. The tougher mental resolve is one aspect that Troy feels strongly about. "We have to get rid of the attitude that says ’It’s great to be there’ when we get to semi-finals and finals. We have to up it this year, and keep pushing, or else it’ll only start to slide."