Ballyea proved themselves the comeback kids in more ways than one in the 2018 Clare Senior Hurling Championship.
The provincial kings of 2016 claimed back the Canon Hamilton against all the odds in a year that saw them without a number of the panel that went all the way to Croke Park two years ago.
Captain Stan Lineen, Gearoid ‘Gudgie’ O’Connell, Cathal Doohan, Paul Flanagan, Damien Burke and Pat Joe Connolly were all among the absentees for various reasons in 2018, while the man who started out the year in goal, Kevin Sheehan, would end up as a championship winning manager.
With such a turnover in a short space of time, you could have forgiven Ballyea for needing time to bed in their new boys. They didn’t need it though as Barry Coote marshalled the goal, Brandon O’Connell and Aonghus Keane excelled in defence, while Tadgh Lynch and Cillian Brennan slotted seamlessly into the attack.
It was also a year that saw Niall Deasy and Tony Kelly run the show from a scoring perspective for Ballyea as the twin terrors rattled defences throughout the championship with Deasy hitting 0-13 from placed balls in the final alone.
Whitegate were first to fall to the sword in a 3-20 to 0-14 win. Then came the pairing that we would eventually see march behind the band in October as Cratloe played their part in a thriller that went all the way to extra-time before the champions came through. Inagh/Kilnamona and O’Callaghan’s Mills both fell to the Bally boys before that dramatic final where Cratloe were the opposition once more.
The south-east Clare men were dominant in the opening half and led by four points at the break. That lead would extend to seven early in the second period, but then came the comeback. Martin O’Leary’s goal and Brandon O’Connell’s point would swing the pendulum in Ballyea’s direction which saw them take home the Canon for the second time in three years.
Former Clare captain and Feakle club man Tommy Guilfoyle feels the manner in which Ballyea were crowned champions was the story of the year.
He said: “They lost their management at the start of the year and turned to a great club man in Kevin Sheehan to take the team. They had time to recover before the championship rolled around and worked their way through the rest of the Clare Cup campaign to get ready. It’s incredible really to lose the amount of players they did and still win the championship. It would have been the death knell for many other clubs but they took it on as a challenge. I thought their style of play was really positive in that they went out to play as best they could and got the ultimate reward. Ballyea are blessed to have so many match winners and when you have the likes of Tony Kelly, Niall Deasy, Gary Brennan, Jack Browne and all these lads with you, you always have a chance.”
There’s been something of fairy-tale story in Clare club hurling each year for the past few seasons with Ballyea filling that role in 2016 before Clooney/Quin stood on the cusp in 2017. This year, that mantle arguably belonged to an O’Callaghan’s Mills side who almost bridged a 25 year wait to march behind the band before just falling short against Ballyea in the last four. Guilfoyle feels Pat Loughnane’s men will take a lot of heart from their campaign.
“Momentum is often so important and they started off with victory over St Joseph’s Doora Barefield in the first round and they grew from there. They built up real confidence and had some good displays from younger players who probably weren’t as widely known outside their own club. The experience of this year will really stand to them and the challenge now is to build on that. Their Junior A team were in the final at that grade so there’s a good core of players in the club and it’s important now they continue working as hard as they have been to see can they take that next step” he said.
2018 saw St Joseph’s Doora Barefield lose their senior status in both the Clare Senior hurling and football championships. The Parish now face a re-building task that could take quite some time to get right. This was further compounded at the clubs recent AGM which saw them fail to elect a chairman on the night. Guilfoyle feels it’s hard to define what exactly needs to change to get the former All-Ireland champions back to the top table.
“When we look at rural clubs in particular where resources and facilities are limited, you see Doora Barefield with an inter-county set up in Gurteen with fabulous pitches and halls and everything you could want. If you want to call a spade a spade here, you have to say that they’ve been underachieving. They’ve always had strong underage teams but just can’t seem to bring it through. They now face into the intermediate championship after a tame enough exit from the top tier and now it becomes all about attitude. Everyone in the club has to have that hunger to get back up and that’s the real test ahead of them now for 2019” said Guilfoyle.
There was a noticeable growth in Guilfoyle’s stature when the topic turned to Feakle’s run this year. The east Clare men were impressive winners of the Clare intermediate title at the first time of asking before suffering a heart-breaking loss in the Munster final against Cork champions Charleville.
He said: “The Feakle players and management had a frank discussion after being relegated last year and every one of them committed to putting in a savage effort to bounce straight back up. The players in Feakle believe they are good enough to be playing senior but thinking it is one thing, you have to go and prove it. Ultimately they came through each challenge with relative ease, outside of the two games against Broadford which were like county finals in themselves. The confidence they took from those games was crucial and kicked on from there with Shane McGrath in particular shooting the lights out.”
A Munster campaign awaited in a journey that took Feakle to Waterford where they dispatched the challenge of Clonea before heading for the Gaelic Grounds to face Charleville. In a cruel twist of fate, a day that promised to be the ultimate fairy-tale would end up as a nightmare. A 10 point half-time lead was whittled away before a late goal saw the title head Leeside after a 3 point defeat.
2011 was the last time the Canon Hamilton was successfully defended as Crusheen registered back-to-back wins. Does Tommy think Ballyea will hold onto that crown or who are the contenders in the pack?
“The New Year brings new focus and teams will be busy putting management teams in place. There’s a number of teams who will be gunning for Ballyea next year. Cratloe will be stung from that final defeat and will be a dangerous prospect. Kilmaley and Inagh/Kilnamona are obvious contenders and you still have the likes of Clooney/Quin and O’Callaghan’s Mills who are always going to pose problems. Feakle won’t be happy to just make up the numbers either when they come back up. The real question for me is are the traditional powerhouses operating at the level they used to be with the likes of Sixmilebridge, Newmarket, Eire Óg and Wolfe Tones. Personally I don’t think they are. The championship is wide open for 2019 and as people found out this year, you write Ballyea off at your peril. If they get back some of the players they were missing, they will be a serious prospect again” he concluded.
Listen back to the full interview with Tommy below