ON 16 October 16 this year, Leo McGough achieved a long-held ambition when he attended his 31st senior hurling county final in 31 different counties in Ireland. Fermanagh only have one senior hurling team so they haven’t had a senior final since 2013. So when Leo travelled to the Athletic Grounds in Armagh to see Middletown na Fianna clinch four in a row Armagh senior hurling titles by beating Keady 1-19 to 2-12, the Carlow stats expert was achieving his own personal milestone.
“There is no point in being mad unless you go and prove it,” remarked Leo when reflecting on his amazing feat.
His achievement could well be broken down into two legs.
1971-1990 and 2011-2022 . He attended his first Carlow senior final in 1971. In 1976 he was at the Carlow final and immediately afterwards he hitched a lift down to see Cats legend, Eddie Keher, play in the Kilkenny senior final. His loyalty was to Carlow and no matter what else was on around the country, Leo never missed a Carlow semi-final or final. That narrowed his opportunities to go to a decider outside the county. It was a real hit and miss affair.
“Working for The Nationalist I ended up covering the Kildare and Laois finals at different stages. Through chance, I got to the Galway final by meeting someone in a hotel. In 1988 I knew a chap who was playing in the Offaly final. By 1990, Mark Mullins was playing in Cork and a few of us went down from Carlow. I remember talking in Na Piarsaigh clubhouse that night that I had been at 13 county finals in different counties. That was just by tipping along,” explained Leo.
For the next 21 years, Leo never missed a Carlow semi-final or final. For most of those games they would have been on the same day as county finals in other counties that Leo yearned to be at.
“Apart from the Covid year, I haven’t missed a Carlow semi-final or final since the 1971 final and maybe the late 70s for the semi-finals. That ruled out going to any of those games. I was also going to matches in Clare. Working with the paper I was covering football as well so there wasn’t the freedom to go.”
He stopped writing for the papers in 2011 and it was then his mission to attend every county final in Ireland started in earnest. He had 18 left to do.
“The Cork final was the 13th in 1990 and there was no 14th until 2011 when I went to the Antrim final. From then on, I was making a list of the finals I had been at and a bucket list of the finals, I hadn’t been at,” recalled Leo.
“You would look at the paper during the week. There might be 10 finals on but three would be on the one day. Then there would be three on the following Sunday but the Carlow semi-finals would be on. I was keeping that record going on as well.”
At one stage, the Carlow county board inadvertently did Leo a favour when they changed their schedule.
“What was very good for me was that Carlow started to play their final in August so it freed up September and October. Normally, the Carlow semi-finals and finals were played in October and that ruled out two Sundays. That would rule out potentially six finals.”
Loyal to the last, Leo estimates the last Carlow county final he didn’t attend was in 1969. The following year, the Carlow final wasn’t played in 1970 because of a dispute. He didn’t apply to go to the Covid final of 2020.
“I didn’t try to get in. I said, why should I be the one to go when players’ parents couldn’t go? I could have tried to pull a stroke but it would not have sat well with me. For example, a parent of one of the Ballinkillen players wasn’t able to go. That couldn’t be.”
The run of Carlow finals that Leo has attended includes replays. There were three matches in 1978. There were other replays but apart from 2020, Leo hasn’t missed a final.
He was given a window of opportunity that year when Ballinkillen wouldn’t play and St Mullins, in turn, wouldn’t take the game. A dispute was resolved and the game was played the following week and the day that semi-final was due to be played, Leo attended the Derry final.
What makes Leo’s achievement all the more amazing is that he doesn’t drive his own car. He uses public transport almost all the time.
“For the ones in the 80s I used to thumb. For the Cork final in 1990 and Mark Mullins playing, there was a car load of us.
“From 2011, for the Wicklow one (2018) which I went with Carmel (his partner), I always went to Dublin to get to places like Sligo, Derry, Longford. You have to work out the logistics of buses coming and going. It was an adventure before a ball had been even thrown in or before I took off to go,” agreed the record maker in waiting.
“For the one in Down, getting there on Sunday by public transport was a difficulty. On Saturday, I was going to the Carlow camogie final. I saw on Facebook the two teams who were playing. Ballygalget and Ballycran. I went on their Facebook pages looking for advise how to get there from Belfast. The Ballygalget PRO came back to me and told me that if I got to Belfast, there was a man there who was travelling to support Ballygalget in Portaferry. He would give me a lift from Belfast and back.”
Roscommon in 2019 also presented problems in that Leo was struggling to find public transport which would have taken him from Roscommon town to Athleague where the match was due to be held.
Leo made contact through social media with a man who would eventually become county board chairman in Roscommon. That worked and they met in Roscommon Town before driving to Athleague for the final.
Leo always looked out for Carlow connections. He met Kevin Moloney, who was originally from Rathvilly, at the Monaghan final.
“I found out afterwards that a man called Gabby Doyle from Bagenalstown, who I would have seen when I was attending matches in Carlow, is living in Monaghan and was at that final. We didn’t know each other was there.”
Leo is fiercely protective of those who follow hurling in what could well be described as the non-McCarthy Cup counties. It sticks in his craw when he hears people say there is no hurling in counties such as Cavan or Leitrim.
“If you were at the Armagh hurling final, the Mayo hurling final, the Monaghan hurling final,
the person you would be beside at those finals would know more about hurling than say, the possibility, of a lad beside you at an All-Ireland hurling final, who is from those strong counties but only turns up the day of an All-Ireland final. They might not even know the club a lad is playing with.
“Whereas, if you are at a game where there are only 300 spectators at it-150 from each club, There is no-one there who is not neutral. They have been involved all up along. As far as I am concerned they are the real hurling people.
“The day I was in Ballyhaunis for the Mayo county finals, the lads who were going out to play, for them that was as important as Ballyhale Shamrocks going out to play in their county final.”
Leo says there is some story attached to every county final.
“No matter what year, you have a news story and a new angle,” he says.
For him there are no such thing as neutrals at GAA matches. Neutrals (?) will eventually start rooting for one side or the other.
“For instance, I would like to see Ballygunnar win ten in a row next year in Waterford.
Previously, Erins Own won nine in a row. Then Mount Sion came along and they had nine in a row. They were playing Erins Own for the ten in 1962. There were two Carlow lads playing with Erins Own, Willie Walsh and Peter McGovern. Erins Own bent over backwards to be the ones to stop breaking their record. They did. They stopped them from winning the nine in a row. Now, you have Ballygunnar on the cusp of that. Mount Sion played them in the semi-final last year and could have beaten them but were well beaten in the final this year. They will be chomping at the bit to stop them next year,” outlined Leo.
He says he was delighted to see Offaly win their football All-Ireland in 1982 but, on the other hand, they deprived Kerry of their five in a row. More recently, Tipperary hurlers did the same to Kilkenny. Ballygunnar are looking for a place in the annals.
“It would be great to say you saw history. It is not jumping on the bandwagon. When you see a strong team, you would like to see them make history,” is Leo’s simple explanation of his thought process.
Yet he knows that another Carlow man is set to equal his record and probably go a step further.
John Ryan played underage with Kildavin. His father was living in Kildavin but he went back to Wexford. His sons all played with Kildavin. John played midfield for Carlow in the All-Ireland B final of 1991 in Croke Park
After that he hurled with London. He came back to Wexford in 2015, and this is where Leo renewed acquaintances with the former intercounty player.
“In 2016 I was after burning the internet. The Louth final was on in Drogheda in the afternoon and the Cavan final was on in Breffni Park that evening. I tried every angle on the internet to try and get from Drogheda to Breffni Park that evening,” recalled Leo.
“I had given up all hope. I was at the Louth final and was on Facebook at the time. I took a picture of the parade and it was a sunny kind of day and I wasn’t able to see my laptop. I went into an old fashioned turnstile which was vacant. I had gone in for shade and was putting up my parade photo when I heard a voice.
“What the f— are you doing here?”
It was John Ryan. Leo told him he was trying to tick another county finals. John revealed that he was going to Cavan and offered him a place in the car. Leo had his lift. They hooked up and had a great day. After originally telling Leo he was going to drop him in Dublin, John eventually brought him back all the way to Carlow.
At the time, John had attended 23 county finals so must be very near to ending his mission too.
“John will do it eventually, and he also played in three county finals in London too,” predicted Leo.
For the Carlow stats man, his quest is over now. He has been asked would he go to see some of the hurling finals abroad.
“With the best will in the world the London and Warwickshire finals, it is a different thing completely to the 32 counties. Someone said would I go to London? I am not saying I won’t go to London but when I set off, it was to be the 32 counties. You could get technical and there could be Austral-Asia finals,” he pointed out.
Leo finds it hard to articulate how he felt coming out of Armagh after the 31 finals had been ticked off. He points to the pre-match preparations.
“There is a certain adrenaline rush, a bit like playing an actual match and having it coming together as you have to be on the bus at a certain time. There is planning involved getting to the match.”
Now the pre-match ritual is over but there are aspects of his travels he is going to miss.
“When I was coming out the gate and getting on the bus the first thing I did was to look and see where I was going to go now. That didn’t happen after the Armagh final,” he pointed out.
Technology has changed a lot from 1971. Since 2011 Leo has enjoyed travelling home with his computer on the bus or train from a county final.
“I watched the Kilkenny final without knowing the result. That is one great thing about streaming. I had a Tipp semi-final and a Clare semi-final streamed without knowing the results.
He eventually concedes that being at the Armagh final brought a huge sense of achievement afterwards.
“You would have to say, there was an air of satisfaction. I wasn’t jumping up and down as if I had won a county final. When you were looking at 13 turning to 14 in Antrim after 31 years of a break it was a long way. It only took ten years with two Covid years in there after that.”
By Kieran Murphy