Big days in hurling are a hard dog to handle, and there is no bigger day than an All-Ireland Final.
At any level, club or county, you have to find a way to handle the occasion. Maybe it’s only hindsight when you know the result but I was up early yesterday in Croke Park and I had a gander at the two teams beforehand, when they went out for their pre-match stroll.
Ballyea, in their body language, looked the more nervous. They seemed to be doing a lot more looking around, checking out their surroundings.
The Cuala lads were that bit more relaxed. But why wouldn’t they be, when so many of them have seen Croker with Dublin at Minor and U21 and Senior? That was part of the dynamic.
But there’s another story too. I often think the best way to prepare for a big day is to aim for a ‘seven out of ten’ type performance. Something solid, nothing flashy. Get yourself planted in the game and see where it takes you.
A seven performance can easily tumble into an eight or even a nine, if you get going well. If you feel you have to be a nine from the start, everything starts getting magnified if anything at all goes wrong. Maybe that’s what happened with Tony Kelly?
Tony is just a magnificent hurler, already one of Clare’s finest ever. He kept trying and trying but simply couldn’t get himself planted in the game. It’s hard to come into a final as the most highlighted player of the whole 30. All credit, though, to Mattie Kenny and Cuala’s management. They detailed John Sheanon to mark Tony, which would have raised a few eyebrows but turned out a superb decision.
When Sheanon pointed in the 25th minute, putting Cuala four points up, it felt like a turning point. Afterwards, Ballyea were never closer than four points down.
That was precisely the margin when Niall Deasy goaled in the 51st minute, for 1-10 to 1-14. You thought Ballyea might kick on and set up a grandstand finish, but Darragh O’Connell showed his absolute class when it most counted.
Darragh won the puckout, went off like a thoroughbred down the centre, and took a point, which could easily have been a goal. I couldn’t see Cuala beaten from there.
As it turned out, they scored 1-5 without reply. That was that, no ambiguities at all. Cuala answered all the important questions.
Ballyea’s main problem yesterday was their big names were too busy with a direct opponent. Other days, Jack Browne and Paul Flanagan and Gearóid O’Connell were able to sweep and help out at the back. Not yesterday.
Jack Browne was so busy with Con O’Callaghan at full forward he couldn’t look out as much for his corner men. Con is such a handful, so direct and strong. What a pity he’s another who looks like being lost to the Dublin footballers… Would Ger Cunningham have a rethink about Colm Ó Chronín? I know he’s meant to be going off travelling but Colm was so important yesterday at centre forward. Wouldn’t he have a ton to offer Dublin hurlers?
Funny enough, in all my time involved with them, I was never out in Cuala’s clubhouse. Although Ballyea are part of my own parish, Clarecastle, and I was hoping strong they could do it, I can’t begrudge Cuala this win.
But this takes nothing away from Ballyea’s season. They have been magnificent, given other clubs in Clare hope they could travel the same road.
I was driving through Ballyea the other day and saw someone had a sign up: ‘They have the cash but we have the ash.’ I know what was meant, Dalkey and Killiney as affluent areas, but that aspect would be far from the whole of it. You’d find there are plenty similarities between the two clubs, in actual fact.
To be honest, I was moved by Oisín Gough’s acceptance speech. Oisín did what all captains do, if you’re lucky enough to get up on that podium. He mentioned the people and the families at the centre of his club. Oisín made sure to mention the Holdens and the Schuttes, the Sheanons and the Treacys.
Exact same as any country club. Mick Holden of Cuala was a real hero of mine when I was growing up. Whether it was football or hurling, Mick played with this all out passion and commitment, and I was kinda inspired by his approach. I’m sure he is a happy man today, looking down.
I’d say Cuala will have their own personal Cheltenham out there for the weekend, and the best of luck to them. They are a great club, and everyone involved deserves this moment.
They handled the dog. Mattie Kenny deserves serious plaudits for his role, keeping everything tight in the camp. Hopefully Dublin hurling all over the city will get a hop off their brilliant campaign.