Ballintubber going the hard yards
By Michael Devlin
If Ballintubber are to win this year’s Connacht Senior Club Football Championship this year, they’ll have done it the hard way.
Their epic duel with reigning county champs Castlebar went the full distance - twice - before ‘Tubber eventually prevailed thanks to a winning kick from Joe Geraghty in the final minute of extra-time in the replay.
After such a taxing effort over two games to get over the holders, Ballintubber only had seven days to prepare for the Mayo final against neighbours Breaffy, led by Aidan O’Shea. Once again, they were made to dig deep for victory, Dairmuid O’Connor landing the winning score in the 59th minute to clinch Ballintubber’s fourth Mayo Senior Championship.
Sligo kingpins Tourlestrane provided the next hurdle at the Connacht quarter-final stage, and after a tense, low-scoring possession game it was Ballintubber’s inter-county stars, the O’Connor brothers Cillian and Diarmuid, who edged them over the line in yet another one-point win, 0-6 to 0-5.
Team manager Kevin Johnson is hoping each game has steeled his side as they take on Leitrim champions Aughawillan at Pairc Sean MacDiarmada this Sunday.
“Each game is a learning experience and a different experience,” Johnson told GAA.ie. “The last three championship wins have been by one point, and that’s hopefully going stand to us come Sunday. Those one-point wins really come down to experience and your key players doing the right thing at the right time.
Sligo native Johnson is in his first year in senior football management, having coached at underage and club level in Galway. In the past he’s worked with Salthill-Knocknacarra and Mountbellew-Moylough, as well as Academy and minor teams in the Galway setup. He describes his experience with Ballintubber thus far as “fantastic.”
“It’s great to be where we are at the moment. They’re a very progressive club, and I’ve a fantastic support team around me in Ger Brady, Gary Walsh and Rory Hallinan. They’re all club lads and it’s fantastic to be around those people.”
Approaching the first game with Castlebar, Johnson revealed there was not much he had to say to his players who had lost a county in 2017 to the Mitchels club.
“They knew Castlebar and knew it was very important that they left it all on the field. Going into that game we knew that on any given day we were capable of matching Castlebar, both physically and with football. We felt that on the day it’s a 50/50 game and if we get the break we have a great chance there.
“At normal time we were lucky to get the draw, but I think after extra-time we felt we were a little bit disappointed. We went two points up and we should have pushed on and we didn’t. In the end a draw was a fair result.”
Lifting his players up off the canvas to tackle the champions again within a week was a test for Johnson, but he was aided by the fact the team came through the first game with a clean bill of health.
“It was very challenging, but that is the challenge and that’s what you train all year for. The most important thing from our side is that we came out of the first day with all our players available. That was a massive bonus going into the replay. Small margins win these games, and Joe Geraghty came off the bench and got the winning score. That’s massive for the panel and we were just absolutely delighted with the win.
“There was always belief in this group, we’ve shown belief all year. There was massive relief after the win against Castlebar, but we’d only seven days to prepare for the final against Breaffy. Having played them in the group stages only several weeks previously we knew exactly what was going to be in store. It was another massive challenge.
“Again we had the full availability of the group, that was a massive thing after coming through the two games. We knew coming into Breaffy it was going to be another very tough game and again, it was another one-point win. It was grinded out, and the experience of some of the key players was instrumental in the end.
“The most important thing is getting the bodies right and trying to make sure the recovery is there for them. We have a balance of youth and experience, and everyone will recover differently. We gave all the lads a 72-hour break, came back on the Wednesday night. We would have had a brief talk about the previous game and parked it quite quickly and move to the new game.
“These players are very experienced, they love the games. We took something out of each game, they were learning experiences and it was all about improving ourselves and learning from the previous day.
“When the game was over we enjoyed ourselves, I think it’s very important to do that. It was a massive achievement to win the Mayo championship, especially after the two days out against Castlebar and a one-point victory over your close rivals and neighbours Breaffy.
“It was quite emotional and a major relief there, but attention turned to Tourlestrane. The players had a tough few weeks, so we gave them a few days and they enjoyed it, and we were back training again on the Wednesday night.”
Coming into the Tourlestane game at Ennicrone, Johnson once again knew it was never going to be easy, especially in the poor conditions. “They were very well organised, they play a system that is very hard to break down, so we knew we had to be at our A-game to be beat them.
“It was a very different game, different conditions and a different environment for a lot of our younger players. I felt we were very patient, we were very composed throughout, and again our key players showed their experience and that was instrumental in getting us over the line.”
The key players are of course the O’Connors, whose star performances have been significant in getting Ballintubber this far. Cillian scored 0-15 across the two games against Castlebar, and was awarded man of the match in the final after another place-kicking exhibition.
Diarmuid meanwhile has been a perennial driving force from midfield throughout the campaign, as well as kicking that winning score against Breaffy. Of Ballintubber’s 0-6 total against Tourlestrane, Cillian registered five of those with Diarmuid landing the other point.
While Johnson heaps praise on the talented duo, he also stresses the importance of the contribution of the rest of the team, bench included.
“They are role models in any club, and young players will learn from any player like that, and that’s the key for any success, so it’s fantastic having them around.
“They bring inter-county experience, and any successful club team needs that, but it’s a collective effort. As I said, we are using four or five subs every game, and guys like Jason Gibbons, Alan Dillon, Michael Plunkett there, it’s fantastic to have those lads around the younger lads.
“These players are learning all the time, from the likes of Cillian and Diarmuid, and it’s fantastic for the group. Their influence is very important, but it’s not to take away from the whole group who are all contributing brilliantly.”
Aughawillan enter Sunday’s game very much in contrast to Ballintubber. Winners of the Leitrim Championship in three of the last five seasons, they’ve enjoyed a four week break since their 0-14 to 1-9 win over Mohill in the county final.
“They have a nice balance and they’ll be coming very fresh,” said Johnson. “It’s four weeks since the Leitrim final, and in that same time we’ve had three tough games and one-point victories. We’re hoping that the learning experience of the last four weeks will stand to us against Aughawillan, but we know again it will be very tough.
“It’s been a tough month, but these lads, and club lads in general, they love the games. You might go through a month or two with no games, so this is what players want. It’s what it’s all about.
“Aughawillan will be will be coming in quietly confident, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”