Ballyea hurlers prove perseverance pays
By John Harrington
The net bulged, and Robbie Hogan’s heart sank.
Ballyea had just been beaten in the 2015 Clare Senior Hurling Championship Quarter-Final by a goal scored with the last puck of the ball in extra-time.
When he thinks now of the desolation in their dressing-room after that loss to Kilmaley and the depression that hung over the parish for weeks afterwards, the only thing he can compare it to is a death in the family.
2015 was meant to be Ballyea’s big year. They’d been narrowly beaten in the 2013 County Semi-Final by Newmarket and were now two years older, wiser, and better.
It was team manager Hogan’s fourth year at the helm and he’d poured every fibre of his being into the job.
So when it all ended with that sickening defeat to Kilmaley, Hogan decided he’d run out of road and it was time for someone else to drive the thing on.
That was until a convoy of cars pulled up outside his house one day and a delegation of Ballyea players led by Tony Kelly, Jack Browne and Paul Flanagan knocked on his door.
They wanted him to give it another rattle, and as he admits now, “When those lads come calling, you can’t really refuse them."
He’s mightily glad now he didn’t. Ballyea are Clare county champions for the first time in the club’s history thanks to last weekend’s replay victory over Clonlara, and the fact that he came so close to walking away last year only makes the achievement all the more special for Hogan.
“Ah it does,” he admits. “There's a lot of emotion alright. Someone said it can never again be done to win the first one.
“It was unreal I suppose to be honest. Any day you make a bit of history it's massive. Ah sure, it's just great for a small club.
“It's hugely satisfying. From a personal point of view the amount of effort you put in, I've three young daughters and they all play a part in helping out with training and all of that as well.
“It's a family effort and when you put that much time in, it's going to affect your family life. It's the ultimate reward really that we got to lift the Canon Hamilton.”
Ballyea have been knocking on the door for a while now. They won the County U-21 ‘A’ Championship in 2012, and ever since have been a force to be reckoned with in senior hurling.
Potential is one thing though, cold, hard achievement is something else entirely, and this county senior title elevates Ballyea into the sort of company they once only peered through a window at.
They’re the furthest club to the west in Clare’s hurling heartland, and for a long time it was more than geography that made them feel peripheral.
“For years we were the second half of the Clarecastle parish and we would have been the junior team,” says Hogan.
“When I was younger your opportunity to win a county title wasn't with Ballyea, you had to go into Clarecastle. They were a senior club and we were a junior club and what they were doing was giving lads the opportunity to play at that level.
“There was a time you could play junior and also play senior and that benefited both clubs in some ways, but in later years that rule was changed so if you went to Clarecastle you were lost from Ballyea really.”
All has changed since those days. Now players arrive on Ballyea’s border with hurleys in hand, offering their services.
Because of their location on the invisible border that separates the traditional hurling and football areas of Clare, players from football strong-holds like Kilmihill and Cooraclare who fancy a bit of hurling too come knocking on their door.
The current panel includes four players from Kilmihil and two from Cooraclare, so the impact of this influx is considerable enough.
“Our geographic location means we're the furthest west hurling club,” says Hogan. “Just outside of Ennis. Lads can come to us as isolated players.
“We'd have a few lads from Kilmihil and Cooraclare. They'd be football clubs. They came to us as a young age and were just given the opportunity to hurl if they wanted to do so.
“It isn't for everyone, it doesn't just work out, but the lads who were good stuck with it. You're just giving them an opportunity, really.”
Watching with a neutral’s eye, it looked like Ballyea had let a glorious chance slip when a last-gasp Clonlara injury-time point denied them victory in the drawn county final.
That sense was deepened when influential full-forward Eoghan Donnellan was ruled out of the replay after breaking two bones in his neck in an accidental training-ground collision.
But typical of a club that makes the most of what it has, Ballyea managed to turn that negative into a positive that may have given them the vital edge they needed in the replay.
“Eoghan scored eight points in the three previous games and it was very unfortunate for him to be missing it but you can't dwell on the fact that a fellow is out,” says Hogan.
“Sometimes you have to just turn these things around and just try to work them in your favour. I think Eoghan sent a text out that morning on the WhatsApp, just to give a little bit of inspiration to the lads, and to a man they responded with a thumbs up.
“I just felt leaving home that morning that we were in the right frame of mind. Eoghan's text definitely inspired the rest of the boys.”
The good news is that Donnellan is expected to make a full recovery and will not require the surgery that was initially feared.
“I was on the phone to him there this morning,” says Hogan. “They were to operate, but he's just been put in a brace now. I don't know the duration, but it will be a few months. The fact that he's not being operated on, we'd be hopeful is good.
“He's in good spirits and he's constantly on the phone to the rest of the lads. We're just hopeful that his recovery is swift.”
When a team wins a county championship for the very first time and then immediately has to refocus for a provincial campaign, the story tends to go one of two ways.
Either they revel in the fact that the pressure is now off and hurl with abandon, or else there’s an understandable dip in their form considering how much mental and physical energy they expended to win the county title.
Hogan knows they face a massive challenge in the face of Tipperary champions Thurles Sarsfields, but is hopeful the high standards his players set for themselves will ensure they meet it head on.
“A lot of the lads have played at the highest level be it in hurling or football,” says Hogan. “They're honest and I know we spoke to a few of the Clonlara lads last night and John Conlon who would be their captain, he spoke to me about when they won it eight years ago and in a similar situation they were out in the Munster club the following week and he said they didn't give that week the respect that it needed.
“He said it was one of his biggest regrets that for the talent they have they haven't won a county title since and, he said, maybe they might never get that opportunity again to represent their county.
“It focused us again really when you hear it coming from John. He said it more as a warning than anything, that you have to embrace these situations.
“A good friend of mine, Colin Lynch, I was talking to him today and, in a similar situation, he played with Kilmaley, and he said these days don't come around often and you have to knuckle down and just get on with the job.
“Thurles Sarsfields are a serious team. They've All-Irelands, All-Stars, they're the full-package, a serious outfit.
“But Clonlara were a serious team too and this is the level you aspire to be at.
“The likes of Gary Brennan and Tony Kelly, they're all but professional in their approach. They manage the situation nearly for us. They're very good lads.”
Kelly, especially, will be a key figure this weekend. The 2013 Hurler of the Year is the main man in this Ballyea set-up. Where he leads, others follow.
He’ll relish the prospect of testing himself against the clutch of recent Tipperary All-Ireland winners that backbone this Sarsfields team, and Hogan intends to give him and the rest of the team a licence to thrill on Sunday.
“Tony comes in the gate there and there's a spring in his step and he's laughing and joking,” says Hogan. “He just enjoys it. We'd give him the freedom to express himself.
“We often say to him they don't come with a set of remote controls. You just let them off and let them loose.
“You keep it simple. I don't think the game has gotten or should get more complicated, you just let them off and express themselves.
“That's how we approach it.”
It’s an approach that has worked well for them so far.