Veteran duo keeping Nemo hurling ambitions going strong

Nemo Rangers stalwarts James Masters and Peter Morgan are better known for their football exploits. On Sunday they play in a Cork county hurling final.
Veteran duo keeping Nemo hurling ambitions going strong

KEEPING IT ELDER LEMON: Nemo Rangers players James Masters (left) and Peter Morgan at the club ahead of the Cork Junior AHC final.

Nemo Rangers are in county final action tomorrow afternoon.

No, hold on a second. That can’t be right.

Sure wasn’t the Cork football decider played there a couple of weeks ago? How could we forget the drudgery of it, or Nemo’s complete abdication of front-foot football for that matter? There must be a misprint in the local fixtures.

No misprint. Read the fine print.

Nemo Rangers versus Harbour Rovers is no football fixture. The pair are colliding in the county junior hurling final.

Nemo and hurling. Now there’s a curious courtship.

Where the club’s relationship with football is about as public as it gets, you won’t find any Instragam post or Facebook status announcing that they and hurling are going steady.

Declarations of affection go unsaid.

“Nemo, in a lot of people's eyes, would be a football club. But there are a lot of people within Nemo who would strongly disagree with that view,” says James Masters.

“Nemo is seen as a successful football club, which it is. But there is a diehard hurling contingent there, as well.” 

Nemo goalkeeper James Masters in action against Whitechurch. Pic: Nemo Rangers
Nemo goalkeeper James Masters in action against Whitechurch. Pic: Nemo Rangers

Masters is the epitome of that curious courtship. The former Cork footballer turned 41 in July. He has nine Cork senior football medals in the bedside locker. And yet tomorrow afternoon he will grace another county final in Nemo colours, just this time as the club’s junior hurling goalkeeper.

It isn’t like he has anything left to prove in the black and green. And he certainly has nothing left to win.

An 18-year-old Masters clipped two points from right half-forward when Nemo won the county junior hurling title for the first and only time in their history back in 2000. This is a medal he already has. And yet the 41-year-old continues to turn out for hurling training every Tuesday and Thursday in Trabeg.

His groomsman and neighbour of three doors down, Peter Morgan, is no different.

Morgan turned 40 in August. He too has a bedside locker home to nine Cork senior football medals. In tomorrow’s hurling decider, he’ll take his place in front of Masters at full-back.

“James is a great leader within the group and very serious about hurling,” remarks Seán Hayes. This is former Cork U21 football manager Seán Hayes. These days, he is Nemo junior hurling manager Seán Hayes.

“Peter is quieter, but he's a Morgan, so he's well respected. To have the two of them is brilliant.” 

The Morgan name and Nemo football is another well-known love affair. The Morgans could hurl too, mind.

Peter’s dad, Noel, was one of three Nemo men, along with Jimmy Barrett and the late Jim Cremin, on the UCC team that won the 1970 Cork hurling championship.

Nemo won a minor double the same year. This crop of youngsters would provide the nucleus of their football takeover from 1972 onwards. On the hurling side, they fed a decade of top-table competitiveness.

“You had the likes of Dinny Allen, Brian Murphy, Séamus Coughlan, Colm Murphy, and Denis O’Driscoll on those minor teams, all of whom would go on to become club dual stars,” explains Hayes.

A year later in ‘71, Nemo supped from the county intermediate hurling cup. Along with the teenagers, you had Frank Cogan marshalling defence and one Billy Morgan sniping further forward.

Promotion was relished. They reached senior semi-finals in 72, 74, and 75. Blackrock, reigning All-Ireland club champions at the time, had only two points to spare over them in the 74 semi-final.

“Nemo were one of the top four teams,” Hayes continues. “But it all went haywire in 1978.” 

What happened in 78?

“Is this a history lesson or an interview,” Hayes quips in that familiar jovial tone of his.

“They got thrown out of the hurling championship because of the big fight that broke out against Bandon, and after that fellas kinda concentrated more on football than hurling.” 

Go back to the “big fight”.

“An incident happened, and all hell broke loose. The game ended up being abandoned.

“When Nemo won the football county later that year, they wouldn't go up and accept the Cup in protest at being thrown out of the hurling. The club executive got suspended by the county board as a result.” 

Their hurling story dimmed and dulled thereafter. They regraded to intermediate in the mid-80s. And stepped back down to junior a few years after that. The city division junior section has been their home for the past 17 years.

Nemo full-back Peter Morgan in action against Whitechurch. Pic: Nemo Rangers
Nemo full-back Peter Morgan in action against Whitechurch. Pic: Nemo Rangers

Arriving into Trabeg, the next generation are encouraged to take a hurley in their hand. It’s not as if each kid is given an O’Neill’s football at the gate and told to ignore every sport that doesn’t involve one.

In our conversations with Hayes, Masters, and Peter Morgan, Seán Lyons, principal of the local St Anthony’s Boys School, is repeatedly namechecked for the work being put in at underage.

Brian Twomey, Eddie O’Leary, Dan Callanan, and Shane O’Connor are others giving hurling a pulse in a football parish.

“It might look like we are all football, but we do give hurling a right go,” says Morgan.

Football, at the end of the day though, is simply the cooler kid. He has all the friends.

The six and seven-year-olds want to be Kevin O’Donovan or Luke Connolly. The smallies between the sticks even have someone to idolise when they pull on their oversized gloves.

The kids don’t know who the club’s marquee hurlers are. The kids never see the hurlers drawing thousands to Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

“There is a fierce love for hurling here, but you have to be competitive along with that,” states Hayes.

Morgan picks up possession.

“Obviously, football is the more attractive because we are playing at the higher grades and there are bigger numbers playing, so there are more teams to come into as you get older.

“We mightn't be very successful at underage football, but we have very good player retention, whereas we struggle to keep the same numbers playing hurling. Hopefully, a win this weekend will change that.”

The same as in the silverware-laden 70s, the club continues to produce dual talents. Of the 20 players who saw action during the semi-final win over Ballinora, 10 featured during the football final defeat to Castlehaven.

A decent crossover, but the figure could so easily be double that.

When a Nemo youngster gets called into a Cork minor football panel or gets a smell of game-time with the club seniors, hurling is often the sacrificial lamb.

Nemo and Cork No.1 Micheál Aodh Martin illuminated this handicapping reality during a recent chat.

“I was always a hurling goalkeeper growing up, that was my best sport. They were looking forward to having a good hurling goalkeeper coming up here.

“I played junior hurling until around 2018/19, around the time inter-county went up another level. You just kinda need those weekends off.” 

Masters, unlike Martin, was an accidental goalkeeper. A couple of years back, the juniors were stuck.

“I’d have a big puck,” Masters laughs, “that’s what got me picked out to fill the gap”.

Before the hips and old age got to him, he had much more than a big puck on him. He won an All-Ireland intermediate hurling medal in 2004. A late call-up, he struck a pair of white flags in the replay victory over Kilkenny.

The Cork senior hurlers came knocking ahead of the 2005 season.

“Billy (Morgan) had asked me into the Cork football panel. A member of the Cork hurling backroom then got in touch. At the time, there was definitely a battle between both managements with regard to lads who could play both.

“I was told in no uncertain terms that because certain lads weren’t playing football, James Masters wasn't playing hurling. I didn't have the skill level anyway. No regrets there at all.

“I love the hurling, love still being involved. It is a release for me that I can go down to Nemo, be with my friends, and play something that I enjoy.” 

It helps too when the full-back is a best friend who’d never snarl back at a green flag conceded. The pair are the last survivors from the 2000 junior winning panel.

“He's very good at taking the pressure off,” says Morgan of the man he once lined out as groomsman for.

“Against St Vincent's, my man got two goals and James didn't say a word to me. When I said it to him during a break in play about my man getting two goals, he immediately piped up that one of them was his fault.

“If it is my fault, he'll take some of the blame. And I'll do the same for him then.

“It is nice to have James behind me, even if we do bring up the average age quite significantly.” 

Morgan’s goal for 2023 was the London marathon, not the sixth-tier Cork junior hurling championship.

He completed London in a fraction outside three hours. Conor O’Donovan’s leaving for Australia created a full-back vacancy. There’s not too many junior full-forwards who’ll outlast this flying 40-year-old.

“He might be getting older, but he remains a phenomenal athlete,” says Masters.

“This will probably be my last year,” Morgan chimes in. “Hopefully go out with a win.” 

Seán Hayes got a text during the week. Nemo, the text outlined, have appeared in only five adult county hurling finals. The aforementioned junior in 2000 and intermediate in 1918, 28, 71, and 2005. 

“That will tell you that hurling victories are rare out here, so they are well celebrated and badly wanted,” Hayes signs off.

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