In my neck of the woods, which is now Tullycrine in west Clare, we’re firmly ensconced in the heart of football territory, but there has always been a real love of Clare hurling back here. Most of that loyalty and backing is directed towards the Clare team but there is also a strong connection and deep core of support for Ballyea.
The parishes are nearly 20 miles apart, a good 25-minute spin across testing country roads, on through Lisseycasey and Caherea, moving into Darragh and back into Ballyea as you reroute back in from the west down through the south-west of the county.
You’d think that people back here would struggle to identify so much with a club so far away but Ballyea have always a strong connection with west Clare because their geographical location lies adjacent to the hotbed of football clubs along south-west and west Clare, which provides a hurling gateway and access point for hurlers right across the Clare footballing heartland.
The Ballyea squad have players involved with seven different football clubs; Clondegad, Cooraclare, Coolmeen, Kilmihil, Kiladysart, Lissycasey and Shannon Gaels. Two of those clubs – Kilmihil and Shannon Gaels – are no distance from my front door.
The mood around the place has been upbeat this week but the discussion around the pub was laced with trepidation after the semi-finals when Ballyea struggled against a 14-man St Finbarr’s team, before Ballygunner put on a five-star showing to beat Na Piarsaigh in a five-star game.
I remember saying to a few lads that evening — and not just to give lads with Ballyea sympathies false hope either — that the comparative pitches that afternoon had an impact on the comparative quality of the matches. Cusack Park was sticky while the re-sodded pitch in the Gaelic Grounds was like a carpet. Semple Stadium is always in great shape but it still won’t be better than the dancefloor Ballygunner flashed their moves on last time out.
Some of the local lads were lamenting that, while Ballygunner look to be on another level, Ballyea don’t seem to be going anywhere near as well as they were, or will need to here. Ballyea were lucky that Tony Kelly stepped up late on against the Barrs but a cameo won’t be enough to keep it pucked out to these lads. TK, and almost every other Ballyea player, will need a season-defining, possibly even a career-defining display, to win this one.
Is that in them? It’s going to be a huge ask because I’ve felt for a while now that Ballyea have looked tired and leggy. A lot of their players have had long seasons with their football clubs. Even Cathal O’Connor, who is one of Clare’s best footballers, found himself in an Intermediate relegation final with Coolmeen. Pierce Lillis, who has been a massive player for Ballyea, has struggled in the last couple of games. It’s no surprise considering the long campaign he had with Cooraclare, who reached the Intermediate final.
Compare that load to Ballygunner who, let’s be honest, can cruise through Waterford before turning their attention to Munster. Some of their players, including Dessie Hutchinson, play football with Gaultier but I can’t see that impacting on their load in the way that the dual demands of so many of the Ballyea lads has.
The Ballyea lads will still relish this challenge, especially being as long as 11/2 with some of the bookies. Some of those odds are probably framed around the Gunners’ 17-point victory in Ennis last year. Yet Tony was injured and Gearóid O’Connell wasn’t around either and Ballyea are a different team with those two guys, especially Tony.
Everything is still loaded in Ballygunner’s favour. As well as the confidence a team gets from winning an All-Ireland, Ballygunner had only two fellas – Dessie Hutch and Pauric Mahony – prominently involved with Waterford this year. A lot of their seasoned campaigners like Philip Mahony, Barry Coughlan, Stephen O’Keeffe and Shane O’Sullivan have stepped away from that scene now and that freshness has really contributed to Ballygunner’s success.
Despite all the dangerous talk around this match, Ballygunner are so experienced now that they are well able to insulate themselves from any of that stuff seeping through. They’ll have noted Ballyea’s strengths too, especially in how they set up with Jack Browne anchoring that defence as a sitting number six. Tactically, the Waterford side are just so astute and worldly that they won’t expect anything to throw them off-kilter.
They’ll really draw on the Na Piarsaigh game as well, not just because it was of such a high standard, but of the way in which Ballygunner reacted when their backs were to the wall at half-time. Tactically, they got it spot on, especially around their short puckouts. But restricting the Limerick champions to just four second-half points also underlined so many of their other strengths especially
composure, supreme conditioning and clinical mindset.
That mental strength will also be an advantage in a game like this because Ballygunner won’t allow themselves to be complacent. They don’t do complacency anyway but they’ll appreciate how dangerous and tricky this game could be if they give Ballyea oxygen and energy early on.
If Ballyea’s patterns are working, their match-ups around the middle are on point and their full-back line is holding up, the longer the game goes on, the more Ballyea will feel they have a chance. Gary Brennan’s exemplary leadership will be critical while Ballyea have a guy too in Paul Flanagan who is well capable of holding Dessie.
Ballyea, through their nature and style, are always hard to beat but Ballygunner look like a team coming close to their peak. They have also been the most consistent team in Munster which is underlined by this being their fifth successive Munster final.
Stranger things have happened than Ballyea turning over Ballygunner but it’s a big ask. A huge ask. I expect the Gunners to win it by five or six points.