Seven Clare senior hurling titles, two Munster club hurling titles, and an All-Ireland club hurling title with Sixmilebridge.
An All-Ireland title, two Munster senior titles, an All-Star, a Munster intermediate and All-Ireland intermediate title with Clare.
Now that Niall Gilligan has brought the curtain down on a glittering 25 year career playing hurling at the highest level, he will need every spare moment to keep all that silverware dusted.
2019 saw Gilligan finally bow out and he did so with yet another Clare senior title success for his beloved Sixmilebridge, with the decision coming in the aftermath of their Munster club loss to Ballygunner.
The 1999 All-Star admits it was always in the back of his mind that this year would be his last at senior level.
“I am happy I made the right decision and I kind of knew it all throughout the year. I am lucky to have played to 43 years old and that my body has allowed me to do so. I found it harder this year and I missed a bit of training at the start of the year and I felt if I was to keep it going that an injury would come. Playing senior is a high level of hurling and I just wasn’t able for it anymore. The head was telling me go places and the legs wouldn’t bring me there so it was simple in that respect” he said.
After the team and management had gathered in the dressing room after that Ballygunner defeat, Gilligan took to his feet to announce the news.
He recalled: “I had my mind made up and the dressing room was full with players and management and all the backroom lads. It was fierce emotional but you can smile now looking back on it. There were nearly floods of tears in the dressing room and not just because I was going but because it was maybe something of an end of an era. Paddy Meehan spoke well after it and he is someone who has been involved in teams with me since he was over us in a minor team in 1994 and it was fitting that he was there to finish it off by being in the management team with the seniors again. The positive side of it is that the club is in a great state at the moment. There are a great bunch of players there with great values. They are great lads to work and they have made it very easy for me to go training because they are a lot younger than me. They are very sociable lads and we have had great nights out after matches. We went on a foreign holiday a few years ago and we had great craic on it and it made it really easy for me to go training with them. As I said to them in the dressing room after, they deserve the best and I wish them the best in all their lives. They have been successful on the hurling field and they will be successful in life too”.
His time at senior level might be at an end, but the competitive streak is far from gone. The immediate future might be one without Gilligan on the hurling fields, but he’s already thinking ahead to a potential return to action
“I would love to continue on playing if the body allowed me and even if I can’t play at the higher level, I love the buzz of it all and we have a Junior B and intermediate team. I would love to be able to play a bit of Junior B but the system in Clare GAA doesn’t allow for that because you can only get re-graded one step at a time. I will be going to our club AGM to put a proposal through that players over 40 can play whatever level they like. I enjoy keeping fit and I enjoy the dressing room, going training, the social aspect of it and all that. The success is brilliant too and it makes it an awful lot easier to keep going. Friends of mine would often have said it was easier for me to keep playing until 43 when we were winning four of the last seven championships and that is true. There were a lot of lads I played for Clare with and they were gone a lot earlier so if the team weren’t going as well, then maybe I would have been gone a lot sooner too” said Gilligan.
He was 34 when he called time on his inter-county career back in 2010, having made his senior breakthrough in 1997 with an All-Ireland title success. He feels that the load now being placed on those at the top level is leading to a worrying drop in the lifespan of county players.
“Looking from the outside in, the fun seems to have gone out of it. Lads have gone over the top and I just think that the training can be overdone. I think what is burning out a lot of players is the meetings being so long and they are not allowed out for even one night in the year. If you look in at the Munster rugby lads, there is more balance in it and that is an area that inter-county management are going to have to look at. You have to try and keep the enjoyment in it but there has to be professional element at the same time. When you look at the crop of talent from the four All-Ireland winning U-21 teams in Clare, a lot of them have retired too soon. It is not their fault, they weren’t enjoying it and that’s why they got out of it. One area that has to be looked at is that the manager is coming in and he is getting his two or three years and he’s going to flake the horse as hard as he can and doesn’t care what happens after. There has to be an overview from a so-called Director of Hurling or whatever it is within your county and maybe even from higher within the GAA” he noted.
Gilligan’s former team-mate Brian Lohan was recently appointed as the new Clare senior hurling manager, and while he feels the Wolfe Tones man deserves the job, he admits it will be a tough one.
“I think it is a great appointment and he is well entitled to his shot at it. He’s one of the greatest Clare hurlers of all time, and that has to hold some bit of weight. On top of that he has experience with UL and Cratloe but he has a tough job on his hands. A good lot of those lads from the four U-21 winning sides are gone and he will have try and build a good structure of a team and try to find some new 20-25 year olds around the place. We haven’t been successful over the last four or five years at U-21 and we have taken some beatings so he will have a tough job to find hurlers out of that. He is a clever guy and a determined guy and no better man to do it. It is a building process but you look at great players like Conor McGrath has retired so it remains to be seen if he will come back for a year. Colin Ryan and Brendan Bugler and these lads are gone too so I think it is a building process. The public will have to realise that too” he said.
Reflecting on his own time at the top level, Gilligan feels he is lucky to have come through without any serious injury and is thankful for the opportunities he had.
“It is one thing that I always said that if I got a bad injury, it would make the practical things like bringing the kids to school would be very awkward so I am lucky in that sense. I have always said too that to talk about the service I have given is wrong. Sixmilebridge and Clare GAA, Sixmilebridge more so, have been very good to me and I owe them the service back too and people can often forget that. I have got a lot out of this too” he concluded.
You can watch the full interview below