'I definitely looked up to Mark and Ambrose when I was younger': Down days driving Mathers as New York journey continues in Carlow
It might not be the dream draw against Down that Tiarnan Mathers craved but, as Neil Loughran finds out, Saturday's clash with Carlow represents another step on an important Championship road for New York…
CARLOW may be calling this weekend - but Tiarnan Mathers’s heart skipped a beat when New York were originally pulled out to face Down during Sunday evening’s Tailteann Cup preliminary quarter-final draw.
Mourne County trio Michael Cunningham, Niall Madine and Paddy Boyle, as well as management team member Gareth Bailie, would also have relished a trip home to face Conor Laverty’s side, while it would have been something special for Mathers having spent so many summers playing football in Longstone – home of mother Stephanie.
Instead the draw had to be redone as Leinster rivals Carlow and Longford, paired together, had already met in the group stages, with Down facing Longford in Newry on Saturday, a few hours after New York go toe-to-toe with the Barrowsiders at Netwatch Cullen Park.
But, even though the Down dream has been dampened for now, Mathers still has fond memories of the ’Stone, and looking up to county stars like Ambrose Rogers and Mark Poland.
“The conversation came up a few times in the house [about facing Down],” he smiled.
“It would be funny because there’s a few Longstone fellas in the Down team now – Finn [McElroy], Conor [Poland] and Michael Ireland, so it would be good craic if we ended up playing them.
“We would’ve spent a lot of time over there when we were younger – we probably spent most of the summer over there, doing Cul Camps at Longstone.
“I definitely looked up to Mark and Ambrose when I was younger. I would’ve been training away with them when I was playing with the Longstone team, so I learnt a lot from them. They were a big influence on my career.”
And, despite dad Colin hailing from Killeavy, Mathers’s loyalties lay firmly with the red and black when Armagh and Down met in last month’s Ulster Championship semi-final – the Orchard eventually prevailing with a bit to spare.
“Yeah, I’d be more of a Down man,” said the 24-year-old, the second eldest of eight children.
“We would’ve spent a lot more time there when we were younger, and I have a lot of friends in Longstone. I gravitate a lot more towards them than the Armagh team.
“It was funny watching it in the house, there’s a split when it comes to those sort of matches, mum was shouting for Down and dad was sitting quietly in his Armagh jersey. He didn’t have to do much talking with the scoreline…”
Yet it is a son of Armagh who helped guide New York to a historic first-ever Championship win, Culloville man Johnny McGeeney’s side dumping out Leitrim on penalties on one of the most dramatic nights Gaelic Park has ever seen.
Having made the short trip from nearby Queens, it was a special occasion for Mathers and New York’s other homegrown players in particular – even if he saw his penalty saved by Leitrim ’keeper Nevin O’Donnell.
“It was tense. I came on in extra-time and then it came round to penalties, McGeeney asked who wants to take them and there was four or five fellas put the hand up, I was one of them.
“You have to be confident in yourself and your ability, sometimes they don’t go in, sometimes they do - thankfully Brossy [Mikey Brosnan] got us over the line!
“But to beat Leitrim was massive. We’ve been in the competition for over 20 years, and finally getting that win, it was some amount of pressure that came off our shoulders.
“It was so special to see the flood of kids coming onto the field, it’s something we had never seen before, and just the amount of support… we had a night after the match where all the kids from the club teams came up to meet the team.
“To inspire them, especially as an American-born player, it means a lot to not just us but the community here.”
New York take down Leitrim and march on to the Connacht semi final— The GAA Corner (@thegaacorner) April 9, 2023
The celebrations rolled on for a couple of days after, only for reality to bite with a Connacht semi-final against in-form Sligo looming.
Tony McEntee’s Yeatsmen proved too strong that day at Markievicz Park, the gap in class clear as Sligo had 14 points to spare on the way to claiming a Connacht final place, as well as a spot in the All-Ireland series.
For New York, meanwhile, it has been a waiting game ever since.
Despite returning to training the week after, and the club schedule ramping up in the Big Apple, it was only on Sunday that McGeeney’s men finally found out who they would be facing.
The squad arrive in Ireland in the coming days and, given work commitments facing members of the panel, it is unlikely to be much more than a whistlestop tour for most.
The opportunity to get more games at this level, however, cannot be underestimated.
“When you’re playing here, you wouldn’t get that kind of experience,” said Mathers, who was part of the New York team that reached last year’s All-Ireland JFC final, losing out to Kilkenny in the decider at Croke Park.
“You wouldn’t be playing against other county players week in, week out. To be playing against them, it brings us on, helps us build our skill level and experience.
“Last year was the first time we had two Championship matches. Normally you’d be preparing from January and only have the one game to look forward to and if you lose, that’s you done until next year.
“The more game-time we get, the stronger we’ll get as a team. This year, getting three matches, it’s an even bigger deal.
“It’s massive for us to get over there because not only do we get the experience, we also get to showcase our homegrown talent as well. Here, all the players are split up into different teams, so we wouldn’t really get the chance to play together except when we travel home to represent New York.
“It brings us along together as a team.”