The relief was palpable. For five years they worked towards this victory, a return to Croke Park finally secured. When Eamonn Walsh climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand to accept the Tommy Moore Cup on St Patrick’s Day 2010, Ballyhale once again stood proudly atop hurling’s club summit. Their victory over three-time winners Portumna near flawless, begging the question as to who would end their rule.
It proved but a brief stay of power. They would emerge as Kilkenny champions on only one occasion in the ensuing four years, Leinster proving beyond their reach until last December.
Saturday was, in their eyes, a final opportunity to involve themselves on All-Ireland club final afternoon, a final opportunity to put themselves within striking distance of old acquaintance Tommy Moore.
Henry Shefflin turned 36 last month, midfielder Bob Alyward and wing-back Aidan Cummins are of similar age. Michael Fennelly enters his thirties at the end of this month, James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick did so two weeks ago.
Colin Fennelly acknowledges this is an ageing Ballyhale outfit, such extended runs they won’t always enjoy.
“It is massive to be going back to Croke Park with the club because we were out of the county championship for the last couple of years. You are wondering are you ever going to get back there. Henry is pushing on and you are wondering is that it for us,” said Fennelly.
The Ballyhale full-forward was effusive in his praise of Shefflin, still serving diligently as the club’s spiritual leader.
“He was an engine out there, and you want to stay going and win as much as you can while you have a good team there.
“He was unbelievable. I have looked up to him my whole life. He is supposed to be handing on the baton to us but we are still looking to him for scores and leadership. He hit a great score from the sideline, there is no point going on about it because he is doing this every game.”
Fennelly, set-up by Eoin Reid, carved out the contest’s first goal opening, his effort well saved by Gort ‘keeper Gavin Lally. On five minutes, the green flag fluttered – Gort celebrating. Richie Cummins, inspired by a surging Paul Killilea run, delivered a tame strike Richie Reid was disappointed not to keep out.
The Gort half-forward line didn’t hang about in imposing themselves thereafter, Killilea, Cummins and Michael Mullins showing superb aerial prowess. Points courtesy of Ger O’Donoghue and an absolute belter from distance by Greg Lally maintained their early advantage.
On 11 minutes, a moment of sheer brilliance swung the pendulum in Ballyhale’s favour. ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick’s delivery was expertly flicked by Eoin Reid into the path of his brother TJ and the half-forward punctured the top left corner of Lally’s goal with consummate ease.
If their first goal had been textbook Kilkenny, their second three minutes later wasn’t quite so glamorous. Richie Reid’s free spelled mayhem in the Gort square. The Galway champions failed to clear their lines and Eoin Reid nicked the sliotar across the white paint.
From there, Colm Bonnar’s charges threatened to cut loose – the impressive Bob Alyward and Shefflin stretching the gap out to six, 2-8 to 1-5.
Gort, to their credit, rallied through Gerry Quinn (two frees) and Michael Mullins. Indeed, two further white flags upon the changes of ends, O’Donoghue and Cummins the providers, cut the deficit to two, 2-9 to 1-10.
Ballyhale hadn’t waited five years to throw away this opportunity, nor were they about to throw away the advantage they had spent much of the first-half establishing. The screw was effortlessly turned.
Colin Fennelly, Conor Walsh (0-2) and Shefflin (0-2) moved the Kilkenny champions out of sight, a tiring Gort outfit struggling to work possession beyond their half-forward line. Substitute Wayne Walsh briefly intercepted the Ballyhale kill, but the job was done when TJ Reid, Henry and Paul Shefflin split the posts in quick succession.
“We have a couple of weeks to look forward to an All-Ireland, exactly where you want to be at this time of year,” added Fennelly. Relief, indeed.
Scorers for Ballyhale Shamrocks: H Shefflin (0-5); TJ Reid (1-2, 0-1 free); E Reid (1-0); B Aylward, C Walsh (0-3 each); P Reid (0-2); P Shefflin, C Fennelly (0-1 each).
Scorers for Gort: R Cummins (1-3); M Mullins (0-1 free), G Quinn (0-2 frees), G Lally (0-1 ’65), G O’Donoghue, W Walsh (0-2 each); P Killilea, J Grealish (0-1 each).
Subs for Ballyhale: R Corcoran for Cummins (37 mins), B Cody for E Reid (55), M Dermody for P Shefflin (55), G Butler for Fitzpatrick (56).
Subs for Gort: Jack Grealish for Killilea (41 mins), W Walsh for Jason Grealish (42), C Helebert for Quinn (51), N Forde for S Forde (55), K Higgins for O’Donoghue (58).
Referee: J Ryan (Tipperary).
BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS: R Reid; K Nolan, J Holden, A Cuddihy; P Shefflin, M Fennelly, A Cummins; B Alyward, C Walsh; J Fitzpatrick, H Shefflin, TJ Reid; P Reid, C Fennelly, E Reid.
GORT: G Lally; M McMahon, T Linnane, M Cummins; A Harte, G Lally, S Linnane; S Forde, J Grealish; A Mullins, G Quinn, P Killilea; R Cummins, M Mullins, G O’Donoghue.