Jimmy Lacey, his wife Julie-Ann and sons, Danny and Tim
In the past proud Kilkenny man, Jimmy Lacey, has felt the longing and yet a slight detachment when looking down on the Croke Park pitch on All-Ireland club hurling final day.
He was there in body and soul at GAA headquarters, a son of Ballyragget longing to see old friends and neighbours succeed in All-Ireland intermediate (2018) and junior (2012) club championship finals.
The 2012 decider brought joy. Last year a defeat suffered by St Patrick’s against Kanturk (Cork) hurt. Jimmy has been gone from his home place for over a decade now, but he still thinks black and amber, still thinks maroon too.
Old habits and all the rest.
On Sunday the 38-year-old father of two will occupy a prime place in Croker. He will be in one of the technical areas on the sideline, managing surprise packet and underdogs Castleblayney (Monaghan) in the All-Ireland club junior hurling final against Kilkenny’s finest at this level, Dunnamaggin.
A true blue Cat plotting the downfall of some of his own.
He laughed when asked the obvious: how does Jimmy Lacey feel facing a Kilkenny team in the final?
“Jimmy Lacey can’t wait,” he chuckled. “To me it doesn’t really matter. I am getting a bit of a slagging about it here. To me it doesn’t matter where the opposition is from. Dunnamaggin could be from Cork, Clare or anywhere.
“It is another game. It is one we want to win. My Kilkenny connection in club finals was with Ballyragget in Croke Park. I would love to have been part of that. Those days there was a bit of me very sorry that I moved away.
“There were times when I felt left out of it all. It is great now to have a chance with another club. I couldn’t be more involved.”
That’s for sure. Not only is Jimmy Lacey from Ballyragget the manager of the Castleblayney hurling club team, he is the club chairman as well. The six times winner of senior championship medals with Castleblayney is a manager by accident, if you like.
The club tumbled through a bad season in 2017, losing a lot, winning nothing. The then manager resigned and it was left to the chairman to find a replacement.
There was no queue, no takers after 15 or 16 might be managers were approached. And so Jimmy ended up in the job, with great club servant Barry O’Reilly as his right hand man.
The rest, as they say is history - Castleblayney are the reigning Monaghan senior hurling league and championship holders; the Ulster junior champions and on Sunday they will contest their first All-Ireland club final.
How difficult is it to manage a team like Castleblayney?
“People are constantly coming up and saying ‘at least you are there’ in the final,” he said of a soft feelings on the ground. “That is something we talked about as a group. That sort of thing would be alright when the game is over. Now that feeling is not enough for us.
“As far as we are concerned, we are going to Croke Park to win an All-Ireland final, not to take part in one. We would be letting ourselves down if we thought any other way.
“People wrote us off in a lot of the games. The two games we were favourites to win in Ulster we struggled. We were favourites against Carrick-on-Shannon (Leitrim) in the semi-final and we struggled there too.
“We seem to save our best performances for when we are underdogs, when we are written off. It is all about the character in the boys. They have plenty of that, and talent. They demand the best of each other.
“They have the hunger. They would train seven days a week if you let them. We have to hold them back to keep them fresh.”
Castleblayney had their dry run to Croke Park on Sunday to get a feel of the place; to plan the attack on the day.
Ambling about the big house brought back memories of the players’ first meeting with the then new manager, Jimmy Lacey. The possibility of Castleblayney getting to Croke Park for the All-Ireland final was mentioned that night.
“We are lucky in the sense that the boys are very clued into what they could do, and what they had to do to improve,” Jimmy said when he took up the story. “We had little to do in terms of motivation when we took over. They boys were hungry.
“You could see that in their hurling all year. It was easy to bring things along. That first night at the players meeting, Croke Park was mentioned. At the time it might have seemed like a pipedream, but it was mentioned.
“We know what we are capable of. We knew if we got ourselves right we could win our own championship, and we could give Ulster a go. After that who knows?”
Who knows indeed!
The success of Castleblayney hurling club has ignited an explosion of pride and good feelings in a town where football is king.
Finances for the club is not a problem. In fact, well wishers are all but throwing money at the club these days. Two weeks ago a Sunday ‘Breakfast Morning’ was organised as a fund-raiser. It was the biggest in the history of the town.
“The whole community, it appears, is behind the team,” Jimmy suggested.
“Every house and shop and building in the town has flags flying. It is great to see it.
“There has been a lot of bad news and sadness in the area, and this appears to be giving people a lift; bringing a bit of cheer back to the town. We are all looking forward to the final and going to Croke Park.”
Castleblayney reached the All-Ireland semi-finals twice before, in 2005 and again in 2014. They were unable to take the step into the final, until now.
“We have been close enough without taking that last step of getting into the final,” Jimmy explained. “The excitement is massive. There are people interested in hurling now who never knew about hurling until the last few weeks. It is great.”
Jimmy Lacey, a primary school teacher, ended up involved with Castleblayney simply because he was from Kilkenny. When he moved to live there in 2007 because his wife had a job there, word got out about ‘the Kilkenny man’.
The approach followed.
Now the husband of Julie-Ann, father of Danny (5) and Tim (3) and son of John and Veronica Lacey from Finan, Ballyragget, could be the man to shape a bit of GAA history.
“Life is great,” said Jimmy, who worked for a year in St Canice’s national school in Kilkenny City before affairs of the heart attracted him north.
“It is a great time to be here. It is a great time to be involved in hurling. We dream here in Castleblayney, but there is serious intent backing it up.”
As a matter of interest, hurling is thriving in Castleblayney HC. Generally they have 10 or 12 players on the Monaghan county team that contests the Nicky Rackard Cup. And they field under-age teams at under-7, 9, 11, 13, 15 and 17 level.
For more on Kilkenny People sport read here.