Gilmore aiming high with Setanta and Donegal

By Shaun Casey

PRACTICE makes perfect and for Gerard Gilmore, working on his frees was a huge help for Setanta last season when they became the first ever team from Donegal to claim the Ulster Intermediate Hurling title.

With former Armagh attacker Declan Coulter sidelined through injury, player/managers Kevin Campbell and Niall Cleary asked Gilmore to fill the void and step up to replace the free-taking gap.

Many evenings were spent by himself with a bag of sliotars and nothing but grass, goalposts and lonely silence for company. Gilmore, a former Tyrone hurler, practiced the art of free taking that wasn’t new to him, but just needed topping up.

In their three Ulster Club Championship games against Ballinascreen, Middletown and Éire Óg, Carrickmore, Gilmore racked up an impressive individual tally of 1-26, with 0-22 of those scores coming from dead-ball efforts.

“Declan Coulter was injured for the majority of the club season,” explained Gilmore. “Kevin Campbell and Niall Cleary gave me to the go ahead to go onto the frees and once I was given that task I landed early before training to practice and stayed late some nights.

“I live about 50 or 100 metres from the pitch, and I work from home so any chance I get after work, I’d be straight up to the pitch on my own hitting frees because frees are a massive part of the game these days and it can be the winning or losing of a game.

“You need to be practising as much as you can to be as accurate as you can. To have that pressure on your shoulders is no easy task but I put a lot of work in on my own and it paid off thankfully.

“I used to hit them at underage years ago, but Declan Coulter has been the main free taker for Setanta for many years, so it was just handed to me. I did tell the boys that I hadn’t hit them in a long time but when you’ve hit them before, it doesn’t be that long coming back to you.

“When you’re hitting frees and you’re going well in the game, your confidence is high, and you feel like you can shoot from anywhere. It definitely brings your game to a whole new level once you’re accurate on the day.”

Gilmore will pick up a Gaelic Life All-Star award next week for his efforts in leading Setanta to provincial glory and it was a year to remember for the whole club. One year after claiming the Ulster Junior title, they made the step up in grade and excelled.

“We definitely put ourselves up in that category of Ulster Intermediate teams to be honest. When we finally won the county final and got into Ulster, we looked at the Ballinascreen game and we took it game by game.

“I know that’s an old cliché, but you can’t look past any team. Once we got past that Ballinascreen game, we grew a bit of belief because we played a lot of friendlies against Middletown and Carrickmore down through the years.

“We’ve always held our own, we might have won some and lost some, but we definitely knew we were good enough and then once you get a good game under your belt, you start believing that you can do it and thankfully we did it.”

Will senior be the next step now for the dominant force of Donegal hurling? Mixing it with the likes of new champions Cushendall, former kingpins Sleacht Néill and the likes of Portaferry will surely be the target.

They need to win back their county final first of course, but advancing to that high grade is an ambition of the club that may not be experienced this year, but in the near future.

“I’m not too sure to be honest,” added Gilmore. “We haven’t really met up yet as a team, but the target will be to win the county title again, which will be no easy task because every team knows each other so well.

“But if we have the option of going up to senior, it would be nice to be up there just to see where you’re really at and where your hurling abilities are. It would be good for Donegal hurling and Setanta to be playing senior hurling.

“To be playing the likes of Cushendall, Loughgiel, Sleacht Néill and whoever else, it would be a big test, but it would be really nice to say you were up there competing with the big boys because we’re a very small club and no one would have expected us to be in this position.”

That’s a discussion that will keep for much later in the year. For now, Gilmore is focusing all his attention on the green and gold of Donegal and trying to drag the county team up through the ranks, just as he’s done at club level.

Gilmore, a native of Strabane, isn’t the only Setanta player on the county panel and he shares many a tough battle with his clubmate Steven McBride, another Gaelic Life All-Star recipient, all year round.

“I mark Stevie nearly every night, even at Donegal training there too we’d mark each other,” Gilmore continued. “To be fair to Stevie, he’s one of these boys that you have to be on your game to get on top of him, he definitely brings the best out in me.

“I think that’s helped me right throughout the year because you have to bring your A game every single time in training and that carries on through to the matches.

“There’s no way you get an easy ball off Stevie McBride. It doesn’t matter how much space you think you have; he’ll get a hook or a block on you some way.”

The pair lined out alongside each other as Donegal opened their league account with an eye-catching 2-23 to 0-13 win over Wicklow in a repeat of last season’s Nickey Rackard Cup final, before suffering a seven-point defeat to Derry in round two.

But the Tir Chonaill men have lofty ambitions of climbing out of Division 2B and getting back to Croke Park to right the wrongs of last season and the upward curve of club hurling can only help them reach those heights.

“I would think it does give the whole county a lift because we have a young panel in Donegal this year and the Setanta boys are trying to bring that experience in and trying to keep that momentum going.

“We’re trying to set the standards in training and once you have that title of Ulster champions then you have that confidence and there’s seven or eight of our lads now that are in the county setup, and they all bring that as well.

“We’re trying to move Donegal hurling in the right direction, not just us but St Eunan’s are pushing the standards as well. They got to the Ulster Junior final this year, unfortunately they were beat (by Castleblayney), but we have a lot of those boys in the team as well.

“We beat Wicklow in the first round, and we were probably unfortunate against Derry, they got two goals and beat us and on any other day those two goals could have been prevented so we were a bit disappointed with that.

“We’re a young team and we’ll learn from that. The aim is to try and get to another league final because with the new structure, if you finish in the top two, you’re automatically promoted so that would be a big help for Donegal hurling.

“It’s no secret that every county team’s target is to win the championship at the end of the season so that would be our main priority and hopefully we can go one step further and walk up those steps this year.”

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