You are viewing the content for Friday 12 September 2003

From Kittens to Cats

Eddie Brennan

THEY are the Cinderella story of Kilkenny hurling, the ugly little duckling that swanned into its first county senior final in 1998. Having won it, they enjoyed the experience so much that for the next three years, they never left the biggest stage in the county.

In 1999 Graigue-Ballycallan lost out to Glenmore, but a year later, they were champions again, and progressed all the way to the All-Ireland club final, only beaten in extra-time by the great Athenry side from Galway.

Two years ago, though drained from a year-long effort, they reached yet another Kilkenny senior final, losing out to O'Loughlin Gaels. That wasn't the end of them however. This year they have already wrapped up what is a very competitive league in Kilkenny, have qualified for the county championship quarter-final. From nowhere, yet now a powerhouse.

"It was just a groundswell of young hurlers that came through almost at once," explains current senior manager John Caldbeck. "And the right man to look after them, Jim Neary the schoolteacher here in the National School. He brought them on, up through the ranks, won a minor county with them. Adrian Ronan won senior All-Irelands in '92 and '93, and he was joined by those lads when Jim took over the team in '98."

John just missed out on the '98 success, captained the intermediate-winning side of '97 but then retired. However he remained involved, as a selector in 1998 along with Tom Hogan, a teaching colleague of Neary's, so he's seen it all.

Yet nothing dilutes the most gratifying aspect for Graigue-Ballycallan folk the increased representation on the county side. On Sunday in Croke Park, they will have three players starting against Cork, and no Kilkenny club is better represented.

Corner-back James Ryall has the unenviable task of holding Cork's new scoring sensation, Setanta Ó hAilpín but Caldbeck insists: "You couldn't find a more suitable man for the job. Nothing fazes him, he's probably the most easy-going man you'll ever meet. He'd sit down and fall asleep beside you! I don't think anything would shake him, and his father, his uncle Tom, were the very same.

"James is a fine confident hurler, an athletic type, big, rangy, very like Setanta, in fact. He covers the ground very easily, and is very good in the air also. James was on the county minor team in '98, but he wasn't even on our club panel when we got to the senior final. He's come on in leaps and bounds, his hurling and his confidence has improved immeasurably, he's grown into a man now. He's starting to hurl the way he can, showing his true potential."

There is also however a tale of tragedy behind this Sunday's appearance. "In 1993, when Kilkenny played Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final, his father Oliver collapsed and died at half-time in Croke Park; heart-attack. James was at the match, 13 years of age, with his brothers, and I remember seeing them all there in tears. Ten years later James is playing there, another All-Ireland final. His father would have been so proud, just lived for the game, that was all he'd talk to you about. James is the absolute stamp of his father, totally dedicated to hurling, and to the club."

Next up, half forward John Hoyne. "Dougal? He was the first of this threesome to get onto the panel, in '98. John is one of the finest ground hurlers in the country, a superb striker who can drive it seventy or eighty yards on the ground, consistently. He's after growing into the job of centre-forward this year, probably even stronger than John Power, and that's saying something.

"He's starting to take on far more responsibility as leader of the attack. John had a serious back problem missed all the '99 season. His younger brother Miceal [Kilkenny senior panellist in 2000] still plays for the club and another brother, Ciaran, was on the Kilkenny minor team last year and he's also playing well for us. Their father, Kieran is the club chairman and their uncle Mickey is a senior selector, so there's a lot of involvement. John is very focused this year on what he's doing, kind of the unsung hero. Stepped straight into an All-Ireland final on his debut as wing-forward in 2000, and did well. His confidence has really grown in the last few years."

Speaking of growing confidence, last but certainly not least of the Graigue-Ballycallan trio, Eddie Brennan. "Fast Eddie? He's another to have really evolved this year. Even in our home club, people would have said Eddie was a bit-part player, that you were better off springing him with about twenty minutes to go, let him use that pace on a tiring defence. He didn't seem to be able to hold his concentration for a full game, for whatever reason. This year, he's just decided 'let's start hurling', and now he's taken over the mantle from DJ Carey as the real goal-scoring danger-man. Where before he would look for the breaks, now he's looking for the ball. That's the difference. But do you know, Eddie actually had an All-Ireland senior medal and an All-Ireland U-21 medal with Kilkenny in his pocket, before he played his first senior game with Graigue-Ballycallan?

It was late in 2000 before he played senior with Graigue-Ballycallan, and by that time, Kilkenny had already won the All-Ireland."

There is, of course, one other well-known Graigue-Ballycallan man, former All-Star, very close to player-of-the-year when Kilkenny won that 2000 All-Ireland.

Last year however, Denis Byrne found himself out of favour with the Cats and after much soul-searching, this dyed-in-the-wool Graigue-Ballycallan and Kilkenny-man committed to Tipperary and Mullinahone.

"A lot of us felt sorry for Denis, that he found himself in a position where he felt he had to do what he did. His over-riding motivation was to play inter-county hurling and I think if he could have done that while staying with Graigue-Ballycallan, he would have. Undoubtedly it hurt us, and we tried to persuade him to stay, but it didn't work out. As a club, we can only wish him the best of luck now, but no matter what happens, we'll always be here for him. If he ever wants to come home, we'll still be here."

Proud as they are down there however, at least one house in Graigue-Ballycallan will be proudly flying the Cork flag this weekend. "There's sort of a split in the camp, my wife is from Cork," grins John.

"Mary O'Callaghan from Castletownroche, and we haven't been able to convert her. In fact today was jersey day in Glanbia, where she works, and she's gone in with the Cork jersey, wrapped in a red-and-white flag!"

Big day on Sunday then, but always in Graigue-Ballycallan, there's an eye on the future. "Dicksboro on September 27, in the county quarter final. That's our next big day."