By Diarmuid O’Flynn
YOU want contrast? Down’s Ballygalget meet Newtownshandrum of Cork on Sunday in the All-Ireland club senior hurling semi-final.
To get this far, Newtown have beaten Delanys, awarded a walkover against Erin’s Own, outplayed a star-studded CIT side, overcame a highly-motivated, professionally-prepared Cloyne in the final, all to win the Cork Senior Hurling Championship.
After that, they had to beat a resurgent Thurles (Tipperary) and experienced Ballygunner (Waterford), to win the Munster title.
Ballygalget? They’ve beaten Portaferry and Ballycran in Down, then one game, Cushendall (Antrim), to win Ulster. Such circumstances make it difficult for the Down club, for trainer Gerard Monan particularly, to keep things going.
"During the summer, the League structure is poor (Ballygalget play in the Antrim League, which has suffered lately as the emphasis is put on the county team), you’re struggling to keep things going in training without matches, then you have so many lads involved with the county as well (up to a dozen last year). You’re trying to get players ready for August, peaking for September, the county championship. It’s very hard."
And yet, even against all that adversity, Ballygalget prevailed. The two wins inside Down should not be dismissed; there are only three senior teams in the county, but they are three quality teams, deadly rivals and near neighbours, packed into an area of about seven miles by five in the southern tip of the Ards peninsula.
The win against Cushendall is another that merits respect; Dunloy have done Antrim proud in recent years, taking a couple of big scalps in the All-Ireland series, but it was Cushendall all the way this year, convincing Antrim champions. Yet, when Ballygalget went to play them, in Belfast, Gerard expected nothing less than the win. "My belief, when I took over this job, was that we had a panel of players underachieving. We’d been beaten in three championships in a row; a lot of those people had played in the All-Ireland semi-final of 1999 (well beaten by Rathnure of Wexford), but they never achieved what they should have.
"I often went up to Belfast, saw Down teams playing well, club and county, but never believing they could actually win. Doing alright, ending up being beaten by four or five points. Never believed they could win the game ‘till it was too late. It was the same with the club here, we’ve won the last three counties in a row, go to Casement Park, try hard, get a pat on the back, well done lads, ye didn’t get stuffed. To hell with that. I believed that if they believed in themselves, they were capable of winning this, and they proved that."
The big motivation for Ballygalget now is to prove further, that despite impressions to the contrary, they can cross sticks with the best.
"I’d be a big fan of Cork hurling, and even went to Killarney a couple of years ago to watch them against Tipperary. I’m delighted we’re getting a chance to face a Cork team. It’s a major challenge, no doubt about it, there’s a lot more to this Newtown team than the twins (Ben and Jerry O’Connor) and Pat Mulcahy. Our biggest drawback is those fellas are more experienced at a higher level, their preparations are probably at a higher pitch than ours, but we’ll give it a lash."
Give it a lash? Or go to win? "To win, absolutely; whether we do or not is another matter, but we’re not going down there to earn a pat on the back. The biggest insult we can hear is when someone comes into our dressing-room and says: ‘Ye’re doing a great job, keeping hurling going up there.’ That’s an insult to every hurler in Down and Ulster. Why not come in and say: ‘Hard luck lads, ye need to improve in a couple of areas, we’ll send a coach up, or some of ye come down to us, we’ll go through some things with ye, help ye to improve?’ Forget this patronising.
"It’s not good for hurling if Cork and Kilkenny keep winning all the titles. We’re busting our balls to try and improve ourselves, in a football province. We were always fit as fiddles, but it was football-oriented training, running around fields, busting a gut, jumping ditches but we couldn’t hit the ball. Now we’re doing it all with the ball, what hurling counties have been doing for the last 20 years.
"That’s our biggest problem, we’re behind the Cork level of preparation, but we’re trying to catch up. We need practical help. Instead, we have a situation in Ulster where Down and Derry have to go to Casement Park, Antrim’s home ground, to play them in the Ulster championship. That’s wrong. There’s no reason why those games can’t be played in Down or Derry. It’s not as if you’re going to have 20,000 people there. They’re talking about spreading hurling around, how is that going to help, having the two weaker counties going to Antrim to play the strongest county in their home ground, all the time, in both club and county? That doesn’t happen in any other province. But it’s football orientated here, no money pumped into hurling, nothing."