There were 40 hurlers training at Páirc Mhuire in Maynooth on Tuesday night, not unexpected with a county final to be played this weekend. Encouragingly, the numbers were the same nine months ago in the dark of winter when the light of a senior final was not poking its rays over the horizon.
"There's a big panel there. That's always a good sign of where you're going, even with the couple of injuries," Maynooth manager Tom Walsh tells Balls.
On Sunday, for the first time in 79 years, and 83 years since the last of their six title wins, Maynooth will contest a Kildare senior hurling final when they take on Naas, the three-in-a-row county champions, and the reigning All-Ireland intermediate champions.
In the semi-final, Maynooth caused a shock when they defeated Celbridge, county champions in 2018, and a side which had run Naas close in last year's final.
"Everyone was talking up Celbridge, saying that it was theirs to lose," says Walsh.
"We knew it was well within our capabilities. It didn't come as a massive shock to us in the group, but to everyone on the outside, it definitely seemed like it was. We were missing four or five lads the same day. Maybe that made it a bigger shock to some people."
Maynooth selector Pat O'Meara feels that for those who keep their eye on underage hurling in Kildare, the two-point victory would have been less of a surprise.
Last year, Maynooth won their first ever minor A county hurling title, defeating Naas in the delayed 2020 decider. They've contested three consecutive minor finals, are playing in the A grade at all underage levels, and major strides have been made at schools level in the town.
This year, their U15 side started playing in the Kilkenny league, winning three games and drawing one. Crossing the border to compete in Kilkenny has been a major factor in the rise of hurling in Naas. It's now an element of Maynooth's calculations.
Another reason for the surprise was this being Maynooth's first year back up at senior. Though they'd won several intermediate titles in the interim, they'd lost the subsequent promotion/relegation playoff games against the bottom team in the senior championship.
One of those came last July when they lost by two points to Coill Dubh just six days after defeating a Naas side in the delayed 2020 final. Still, they got up off the canvas to win the 2021 championship, and finally land a knockout blow in the playoff against Éire Óg Corra Choill.
"Over those seven or eight years when we were intermediate, we suffered from that a little bit because you might have won intermediate on a Sunday, and you're back out again the next Saturday playing a relegation playoff. To have a team waiting for you after winning a title is always hard," says O'Meara.
"They've changed it this year, too late for us because we were already promoted. It's right to have a bit more natural promotion and relegation on it.
"To get the intermediate win and then to get the promotion up was a huge, a big relief and there were big celebrations really for that."
Next up it’s Eanna Lohan! One of the most experienced members of the panel, Eanna has had a great career with the senior hurlers in Maynooth! Eanna competed in a minor hurling final against Celbridge back in 2004 and made his senior debut the same year🏳️🏴 pic.twitter.com/E0s4i0wq8B
— Maynooth GAA (@maynoothgaa) September 21, 2022
Coming into this season, Walsh admits that simply maintaining senior status was the aim. That was achieved when they defeated Ardclough in the championship's preliminary round, a victory which sent them in to the winner's group.
"We had a tussle against Ardclough, another proud hurling club in Kildare," says O'Meara.
"For us to get over that line in extra-time with a last-second winner, that was sort of a big celebration just to break the duck of senior for all of us; a lot of the squad would never have played senior, we were intermediate for seven or eight years. That's a long time, and for a fair amount of the squad it would have been their senior [championship] debut that day."
In the group stage, they defeated Coill Dubh by a goal and Clane by two points, ensuring progress to the semi-final. Though, they did lose their final group game heavily to Naas.
"This is a very new experience for a lot of lads, they'd never played senior," says Walsh.
"It's always hard to know what the standard is, and if you're at it or not. After beating Ardclough, we were safe from relegation. We refocused our goal then to get to the knockout stages."
O'Meara, who originally hails from Bodyke in east Clare, describes both he and Walsh, a native of Burgess in Tipperary, as "blow-ins". Maynooth, a university town within commutable distance of Dublin, has always been attractive to those from the outside.
"Over the last number of years, there's a lot of people coming from traditional hurling counties who have moved up around this area, and bought into the club. They are some of the driving force behind it," says Walsh.
Though Walsh, O'Meara and others are imports, the majority of the team are not. While putting together a few bits and pieces for the county final programme during the week, the team management - which also includes Michael O’Doherty, Pat Power and Robby Moore - calculated the average age of the panel to be just 22.
"We have a couple of older citizens who have been hanging around, some of them older than the manager, Tom, maybe!" says O'Meara.
"The whole team, bar one or two who've moved to the town, they're all homegrown who've come through from the underage right up.
"I can think of one on the team, another in the squad, who have moved to the town.
"I was talking to our captain there earlier on, and he had to do a profile for the programme. He was saying it was a teacher in the national school who put the hurley in his hand back then when maybe it wouldn't have been a tradition, maybe what, 20 years ago. He just got bitten by the bug of hurling from there.
"It's a growing town, but the club still needs hard work. Population doesn't guarantee you anything. There's plenty of other towns around that don't produce.
"It's about hard work, trying to give kids at a younger age group a platform to enjoy it, then maintaining numbers as they transition, getting them up and keeping the numbers coming through - that's the real challenge."
A very exciting week ahead for our senior hurlers as we compete in the SHC county final next Sunday against Naas in St.Conleths Park🏴🏳️
During the week we will be introducing members of the panel and management team!!
First up it’s manager Tom Walsh🖤🤍 pic.twitter.com/qBraV1AupS
— Maynooth GAA (@maynoothgaa) September 18, 2022
Win or lose on Sunday, hurling does have a bright future in Maynooth. Though, both Walsh and O'Meara know it's a fire which will always require tending.
"Nothing is guaranteed just because we're a young team," says Walsh.
"It's not guaranteed in two or three years' time, you'll win one, sport doesn't work like that. You have to go out and earn it like.
"We'd will be certainly looking at the future optimistically, but as a club, we have to harness the raw potential we have coming through.
"The last three or four years, there's no doubt about it, Naas are the standard-bearers. We definitely did take heart from [them winning the intermediate All-Ireland].
"It's a two horse race on Sunday. We will be as well-prepared as we can be. Big numbers at training all year, we've worked hard all season.
"We'll be targeting our own performance. If we can play as well as we can and get our own performance right, the result will look after itself from there."