Last year Achill came within touching distance of bringing the Pete McDonnell Cup back home from the mainland, when Castlebar Mitchels B pipped them at the post in the junior final. Despite that disappointment the island men shook off that heartbreak a few weeks later and went out and represented Mayo in the Connacht championship and went all the way to the Connacht final, where once again they fell just short when the Aran Islands beat them in a game that was dubbed the All Island final. But the men from the island have dusted themselves down and are back again for another shot at claiming the Mayo junior title.
We caught up with Achill manager Paul McNamara earlier this week ahead of their junior quarter-final clash against Louisburgh. When asked if it was tough to come back again this year after last year's heartbreak, McNamara said: "It was, even though we went on in Connacht, we still weren't county champions and in history books unfortunately that will always be the case, that Castlebar Mitchels were the county champions. But we went on to represent Mayo in the Connacht championship beating Glaveys in the semi-final before we faced Arran Islands in the final. Now they won that day and they were a fine team, they were far better on the day. It was hard to motivate lads to come back again and to contest another junior title."
But come back they did and they put their heart and soul back into the game and thanks to three wins from three in the group stages, with a hard fought win over Balla in their last group game, they booked their spot in the last eight. McNamara said: "That was a big game to win for us [the Balla game], we got through it and we probably couldn't have had better preparation in the last three weeks either in the Kelly Cup. We played Ballintubber, they beat us by four points, we played Breaffy we were nine down at half time but took them back to within two, and last week we were in action against the Neale in the league and they beat us by four points. Both Breaffy and Ballintubber played a lot of their senior players in those games and they were great games to get for us going into this weekend against Louisburgh."
As for this weekend's game, McNamara knows it is not going to be an easy encounter against their fellow west Mayo men. "We've a costal derby coming up for sure, we're up against a good Louisburgh side who have been knocking on the intermediate door for a while now. We played them last year, they're a strong side, we got the better of them last year and this year be no different, they are very tough opponents."
Putting the effort for the pride of place
For a club like Achill getting their preparations right can be tough, with so many of their players based away from home in cities spread far and wide around the country, but they do all they can to ensure that they are in peak condition for another crack at the McDonnell cup. When asked McNamara told us: "We're the same as last year more or less, but slightly better, Johnathan Fadain has summer work at home, Colm Caffereky will be at home, and Brian Lavelle. We've only four of the team actually based at home for a midweek training sessions full time, so we are totally dependent on our Friday night session and what we can do at weekends. That along with the effort lads make in midweek themselves, to train with clubs nearby where they are working."
While most clubs would have a Friday night session to allow the team to get together at least once a week on the training field, for Achill that still entails late night training after players have travelled long distances, McNamara explained. "What we do is that we facilitate the training session somewhere between 8.30pm and 9pm, and the lads' first stop when they approach Achill is the GAA pitch. That's a big ask for guys to hop into a car at 5pm in Dublin, Limerick or Galway and head west and their first stop at home is the GAA pitch for two hours, it just shows you how committed that the lads are. It's not easy, lucky enough we have the facilities there to do that type of training, sure even now at this time of year it's dark not long after nine and we're on the pitch under after 10pm."
One familiar face stalking the sidelines beside McNamara on game day is former Mayo manager John Maughan who is back on board with the islanders giving them a hand this year. Having a guy like Maughan on the sidelines is something that is a great asset to the whole cause says McNamara. "He gives us a hand with the coaching and the training, it's great and for the lads to have that level of experience coming to the pitch training them and giving his opinion on what we're doing right and where we're falling down, that gives the lads great motivation too and they really put the effort into it."
As for this weekend's game, McNamara was picking from a full deck when we spoke to him on Wednesday night, but there was a round of u21 championship games scheduled for that evening which he was not too pleased about. "We're fully fit, but our u21 team are playing this evening [Wednesday] which I'm not too happy about, because we've had games last week and the few weeks before, and training, and now the u21s have to go out a few days before the championship. Our backbone would be from the u21 team, we'd have seven from the team playing u21. If Achill do go on and win the junior championship this year, no-one can say they didn't put in the effort and those late Friday nights putting in the hard work along the seaside will have been all worth it."