Tony Kelly was like Messi on his best days – untouchable

The game illustrated how far Cork teams have slipped from the main pack, writes Anthony Daly.
Tony Kelly was like Messi on his best days – untouchable

On Saturday, a group of us were in Dingle for the annual Clare hurlers golf outing, rekindling old stories and stoking old memories.

At one stage, I took a photograph of the group and sent it on to our old team-mate, Fergal Hegarty. “From all of us to our great friend,” I texted. “Best of luck tomorrow.” Hego instantly texted back: “Old friends are best.”

I was delighted for Hego because he has done some job as the Ballyea coach. Along with Robbie Hogan, the manager, they have been a superb combination. Robbie is the front of the operation but he is measured and composed in everything he has said and done this year. You can see Hego’s impact on the squad but you can also see Robbie’s; no frills, no hype, no getting caught up in tactics, just go and get the job done.

It was a master move getting Hego in. He is high profile but in other ways, he’s not. He is very unassuming, a clever guy, a cool cat on the line.

The players have taken that lead because there has never been any panic with this group; they were seven down against Crusheen in the Clare quarter-final; they trailed Clonlara by five in the drawn county final; they looked dead and buried against Thurles Sarsfields when behind by seven with eight to play.

When the Glen reduced the deficit to three with 12 to play yesterday, there was never a doubt that Ballyea were going to pull away again.

Although the Glen have put Cork titles back to back, this was a major disappointment for the club. Ballyea were in a different class. Graham Callanan, one of the Glen’s oldest warriors, was their best player. Apart from him, it was very hard to pick out another Glen player who caught your eye.

There was a lot made about the Glen’s victory against Patrickswell being the first win for a Cork club in Munster in six years but that stat probably reflects where Cork club hurling sits in Munster now, which is also probably reflective of Cork’s position at inter-county level. There are waves of new talent coming in Cork, even in the Glen, but the comparative standard between both teams yesterday — especially from Ballyea’s main players — illustrated once more how far Cork teams have slipped from the main pack.

Tony Kelly is a genius but some of the class he showed was different gravy. At one stage during the game I tweeted ‘Kelly or Messi?’

He was like Messi on his best days — untouchable. Unless you stop him, you will not beat Ballyea. And the Glen hardly laid a finger on him. They weren’t able to.

That said, Ballyea had brilliant performers all over the field; Niall Deasy, Paul Flanagan, Gearoid O’Connell. Jack Browne was rock solid in the full-back line. Beside him, Joe Neylon and Brian Carrig may not be noted players but they are pulling their weight big-time. They all are.

Ballyea are an extremely hard-working team but they are all very athletic and you can see the influence of their west Clare players too and the football element within the squad; Gary Brennan wasn’t on the ball much but he had an impact; Cathal Doohan’s athleticism and work ethic was savage; Pearse Lillis may have had three poor wides but the way he steamed onto that ball for his goal was more of a football goal than a hurling goal. Lillis had nearly turned his man before he got the ball and he just blasted it when within shooting distance.

The way Lillis got away from his man almost summed up the difference between the teams, especially the pace. It reminded me of a Champion Stakes quarter-final in Clonmel; an ordinary greyhound comes up the other dog’s shoulder; a class dog just pulls away. And Ballyea were in a different class yesterday.

Their emergence from the margins to the top of the mountain in Munster really underlines the beauty of the club championship. It also shows what can be achieved with intensive underage development, proper planning, heart and belief.

Yet with ten different winners in the last 13 seasons, and with the Clare championship now recognised as the most competitive club championship in the country, Ballyea’s success has also provided inspiration to everyone else within the county.

As a Clarecastle man, with Ballyea as our sister parish, I take my hat off to what this group have achieved.

They may be our close rivals now but this success could be the best thing to happen Clarecastle hurling. We will have to up our game now again, just like everyone else in Clare will.

And so will everyone else left in this club championship.

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