UNTIL it is surpassed, 2016 will be regarded as Ballyea’s greatest season as breakthrough county and Munster titles were garnered in a fairytale few months that only ended in the All-Ireland Final on the following St Patrick’s Day.
Personally however, 2022 has to be Paul Flanagan’s best year to date, with his immense performances for Clare earning him a first ever All-Star nomination before also excelling once more for Ballyea in securing historic back-to-back Canon Hamilton crowns. Understandably therefore, he is not too keen for 2022 to end anytime soon.
“The year keeps going and it’s funny because it kind of instills a bit of extra hunger in you too to go up to Dublin for that awards night. It was my first time at anything like that whereas for some guys they’re probably there every year.
“So for me it was all new as the All-Stars recipients are the best in the country and to get to that level takes a lot of work but it also does fill you with a bit of purpose and bite going forward.”
Flanagan is the perfect example of what hard work and dedication can do as following a whirlwind debut off the bench against Wexford in 2014, his senior inter-county career somewhat stagnated for the remainder of the decade.
Rather than walk away though, the versatile defender went traveling for a year and having recharged the batteries, opted to transform his training regime which proved revolutionary for his inter-county career.
The rest is history as he has been an ever-present under Brian Lohan since 2020, with this year’s All-Star nomination the perfect validation of his metamorphosis.
“You live and die by your choices essentially. Sometimes you can make choices and things mightn’t have fallen the way you wanted but thankfully for me they did.
“I was talking to one of the young lads in school [Ardscoil Rís] this week and I told him that ‘you have to back yourself’ and that’s the main thing.
”No matter whether you’re the last man on the panel or the first name on the team sheet, at the end of the day no one else is going to back you.
“It’s the same with work and life in general, you have to push yourself on and give yourself the credit for what you’re doing and don’t worry too much about external noise because at the end of the day, backing yourself is all that ultimately matters.”
Ballyea will need to take that mantra on board this Saturday as Ballygunner are not only the current Munster and All-Ireland title holders but are also bidding to end the Clare champions’ provincial hopes for the fifth year in succession.
“I’m not trying to play down your chances but realistically we’ll probably go into the final at 5/1 or 6/1. But that suits us fine as it’s still a two horse race and we’ll be working on a few things before Saturday.
“Ballygunner almost have an inter-county competitiveness amongst their squad and are bringing on lads that had starred in last year’s Munster and All-Ireland series so that’s a fair luxury to have.
“They are also totting up big scores in every match including 2-20 against Na Piarsaigh whereas if you look at our averages over the club campaign, it was probably around 17 points.
“In saying that, we don’t have to look too far back to know the flip side of that coin and how sore that was last year to lose in that manner to them, particularly being in Cusack Park as well.”
Of course, he’s referring to Ballygunner’s 3-20 to 2-6 lowering of Ballyea in their most familiar surrounding in the Munster Senior Club Quarter-Final less than a year ago.
“If you ever want a marker to see how good these guys are, that game was it. Subsequent to that, I was down with TG4 to see the Munster Club Final as well against Kilmallock and met Tony Considine on the way just as I was getting out of the car.
“He said that they were hopeful of matching up to them and testing Ballygunner physically. But by then Ballygunner had just gone to another level and they can hurt you in numerous ways is the best compliment I can pay them.
“That was evident the last day in the Gaelic Grounds as well that no matter what you throw at them, they have ways of adapting and driving forward.
“I think based on what everyone saw last year, they really have taken the club game to new heights.”
The question remains as to whether Ballyea can back themselves enough to emulate those lofty surroundings?
“Look, we did it before but I suppose while 2016 is a reference point, it’s a long time ago. The squad has changed and players have changed as well but at the same time, you’ve still a lot of guys there that have experienced that so it’s always a positive to bring with you.
“Overall though, hurling is a funny game in that hope is a great thing and a great sentiment to have but a lot of the time it doesn’t equal what needs to be done on any given day.
“I often find that the game is always a great leveller in itself in terms of testing yourself in a duel with an opposition player so it’s going to be a big thing for us to see how much we can get out of ourselves in Saturday’s final.”
It would certainly put a cherry on top of the 2022 cake for Paul Flanagan if Ballyea can pull off an upset.