Bennettsbridge return to prominence in Kilkenny
By Cian O’Connell
Bennettsbridge’s tradition runs deep so the build up to Sunday’s Kilkenny SHC Final against Ballyhale Shamrocks at Nowlan Park is loaded with satisfaction and sentiment.
Two proud clubs have contributed so much to the striped hurling story, but Bennettsbridge’s return to prominence is an uplifting tale.
It has been a remarkable stint for the ‘Bridge, who will contest their first senior decider since 1974, but the past half decade provides a source of optimism.
Having lost County Junior deciders in 2012 and 2013 Bennettsbridge eventually cleared that hurdle in 2014 motoring through Leinster to secure AIB All Ireland Junior glory in 2015.
Silverware continued to be accumulated that year with Kilkenny and Leinster Intermediate crowns added to the collection leading to the AIB All Ireland Intermediate 2016 triumph.
Now Bennettsbridge are highly competitive at the top table with Chairman Alan Flynn acknowledging that sterling work in the underage grades is now coming to fruition.
“It is the first final since '74, it has been barren times in the club senior wise, but in the last 10 to 15 years in the club huge work has been done at underage level,” Flynn says.
“The success of this team spawns from winning the minor A back in 2011. Maybe 80 per cent of the team that will be playing this coming Sunday were on that team and they are just backboned then by a few more senior lads.
“It is great for everyone concerned because the senior lads went through hard times, putting in the effort, but not getting the results. So it is just great for them that they are enjoying the last few years of success going from Junior to Intermediate and straight to senior. It is all good at the moment.”
So much emphasis was placed on coaching and producing capable hurlers in the juvenile ranks. “Absolutely, there was a big focus put on it in the late 90s and early 00s,” Flynn admits. “A lot of people bought into it and it is paying dividends now. We are still working, we are having a bit of success at the moment.
“Still you have to keep an eye on the underage because if you take your eye off the ball you won't keep the young lads coming and interested. You have to do that. Success breeds that so it is great at the moment. The underage is pivotal to it all.”
The links to the glorious past including 12 Kilkenny senior titles with 11 gleaned in a splendid 19 year spell. Five Bennettsbridge clubmen hoisted the Liam MacCarthy Cup so there is no shortage of inspirational characters. “Unbelievable, they won so many counties between '52 and '71,” Flynn, a native of Cabra, states. “One of the Presidents of the club Johnny McGovern has 11 which is great and it is also great to see the names of the past still there.
“The Cleeres, for example, who have grandsons or grandnephews on that team. It maybe skipped a generation, but the grandkids are coming through this time.
“The tradition is there from the 60s so it is in the blood alright. Fair enough we went through barren spells in the 80s and early 90s, but bit by bit we are back where we want to be and we are delighted to be there.”
How Bennettsbridge have adapted to the senior game in Kilkenny bodes well according to Flynn. “With only 12 teams in it, on any day one can beat another so it all spawned from that time alright,” Flynn adds about how the Junior and Intermediate wins offered such hope.
“Some of our main players were only 18 or so at the time, but they had experience from winning All Irelands with Kilkenny and St Kieran's.
“So there is great tradition in them and great success has followed them. The average age of the team at the moment is only 25 so there is a lot to come and you have young lads coming through pushing for positions making it competitive which is great.”
Flynn’s father won a Dublin Championship with St Brendan’s, but has relished being involved with Bennettsbridge since moving from the capital a decade ago.
“I'm originally from Cabra on the north side of Dublin,” Flynn explains. “I moved down to Kilkenny 10 years ago, I married a 'Bridge woman so we moved down there in 2009.
“I just got involved with the club and became Chairman there six years ago. I was involved with Under 6s at one stage, then I was promoted to Under 8s, next minute I'm Chairman of the club, but it has been brilliant.
“I'm enjoying every minute of it. Six years, every week you'd be looking forward to the next match, especially when it is going so well. Fair enough you will have some hiccups along the way, but what club doesn't. It is great to be involved.”
Hurling is high on the agenda in Bennettsbridge. “When you come from the city to see what is going on in a small village of roughly 1700 or 1800 people it is chalk and cheese” Flynn states.
“You see all the Dublin clubs, thee pool of resources and the pull that they have from all different housing estates. Then you come down to the Bridge, it is only a small 1700 or 1800 population it is brilliant. It breeds and sleeps hurling.
“You just get up in the morning you'd see them walking down the street every young lad has a hurl, they are up to the pitch. We put in a new ball wall there last year which has been a great addition encouraging the young lads to keep going. It is in the bloodline.
“A lot of the kids go into Kieran's, if you leave your schoolbag at home it isn't too bad once you bring your hurl. That is the main thing.”
The Henry Shefflin managed Ballyhale Shamrocks are peppered with accomplished and proven performers, but Bennettsbridge hope to pose stern questions in this weekend’s showpiece. “It is brilliant and it is lovely to have the opportunity to talk about it because it is a huge achievement for this group of lads,” Flynn acknowledges.
“The current management has to take a lot of credit as does the previous management. We can't speak highly enough of what they have done. We are up against the kingpins of hurling, Ballyhale Shamrocks. Everyone of them is nearly a household name, but we aren't too far behind ourselves.”