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Ballyea manager Robbie Hogan (second from right) with his management team of Jude Quinlivan, Diarmuid O’Sullivan, Raymond O’Connor and Kevin O’Grady. Photography by Eugene McCafferty

Robbie keeps his eye on the ball

There’s a turning point in every season that ultimately defines whether a team converges or diverges. In Ballyea’s storied season of 2016, it was arguably their rousing Round 3 fightback to pip a goal hungry Clooney-Quin to the post which placed them on an unforgettable journey of momentum that included historic breakthroughs at county, provincial and almost national level to boot.
Upon his return to the helm for the first time since that momentous year, Robbie Hogan didn’t have to wait long for their defining juncture of the championship as it came with an opening dogfight with relative newcomers Broadford that Ballyea were extremely fortunate to survive by the minimum.
It was a sobering scare that has kept Ballyea firmly on their toes ever since according to Hogan.
“I still have a sliotar in the door of my van with the Broadford crest on it and that’s a reminder of how fine the margins are in the Clare Championship. You could be in a semi-final just as easily as being in the relegation, there’s very little in the difference a lot of the time.
That sliotar is still there as a constant reminder and it was needed as the tests didn’t get any easier when you look at the Kilmaley game, Newmarket the last day and the draw against Cratloe. Those games build character and will hopefully stand to you as with every close experience, you put it in the bank for the next day.”
Ballyea’s account must be full to the brim at the moment but Hogan wouldn’t have it any other way due to the leadership both on and off the field following their 2016 reunion in 2021.
“It’s always great to come back to your own club and the lads you know and it’s another bonus then to be in the final so we’re delighted. We certainly didn’t have it all our own way right from the very first game but look, that’s Clare hurling and that’s championship stuff so we’re just happy that we are still standing.
“One of the major factors in my decision was when Reggie [Raymond O’Connor], Sully {Diarmuid O’Sullivan], Alan [Duggan], Kieran [Connolly] and the lads agreed to come back on board with me.
So we got the band back together for one last dance as they say and to be honest, there’s great comfort in knowing the lads that you’re working with as well as adding fresh faces such as Jude [Quinlivan], Kevin [O’Grady] for the hurling coaching and Adrian O’Brien then on the S&C side of things.”
So what have been the major differences the second time around?
“A few of the younger lads have really put up their hands and that’s credit to the previous management for bringing them through and blooding them.
“I mean from the team that lined out in last year’s semi-final, I think there are seven changes from the starting 15 whether through injury, travel and just competition for places so that’s a big number in twelve months.
“The younger lads have brought great energy plus the bit of leadership from the older lads.
“Look, obviously Tony [Kelly] Is a huge loss but we’re blessed to have more fellas that have been exposed to big championship games at cub and inter-county level and that leadership brings others with them so it’s an invaluable asset to have and it’s crucial to grinding out wins.”
That big game and final experience, even accounting for the considerable bodyblow of being without their talisman Kelly, surely has to be beneficial to Ballyea ahead of Sunday’s showdown with newcomer Inagh-Kilnamona?
“I think its definitely a help as you know what lies ahead. There’s much more fanfare around a county final that any other game but you have to embrace it too and go with it.
“Look, I don’t really mind what role we play as long as we’re in a final but we’ve an extremely tough challenge ahead on Sunday.
“In the last few years, Inagh-Kilnamona been very unlucky not to make the breakthrough. Under Hego [Fergal Hegarty], they could well have beaten the ‘Bridge two years ago in the semi-final and they’ve only added to their pack every year since.
“So it’s great for Inagh-Kilnamona, the atmosphere, the colour, the buzz of the schools, it’s a great lift to a parish and a community and it’s a challenge that we expect to be very tough but one we’re also looking forward to.”
No doubt with a few glances at the Broadford ball on the journey to Cusack Park on Sunday.

by Eoin Brennan

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