Dublin champions Cuala were the better side all through this encounter, even if 12 points was a slightly flattering margin of victory over Clare’s Ballyea. There was only a score between them turning into the final 10 minutes, but Cuala’s power and athleticism enabled them to cut loose in that final period and cruise to the finishing line. Paul Schutte in defence, David Treacy’s accuracy up front and Darragh O’Connell’s class in midfield were all markers of their superiority.
Their manager Mattie Kenny paid tribute at the final whistle: “On a journey like this, there’s times that your character is going to be tested. We’ve all played in games where you’re better than the opposition and you’re getting it easy and you can look good.
“But it’s when questions are asked, that’s when we see the true worth of a player and the true character of the player.”
Those questions came for Kenny’s men with 10 minutes left - Ballyea’s main forward, Niall Deasy, crashed home a goal and Cuala’s grip on the Tommy Moore Cup was suddenly looser, with only four points in it.
They responded with 1-1, however, and from there until the end there was only one team in it.
Robbie Hogan, the Ballyea boss, was understandably crestfallen at the end: “We just struggled with lots of aspects of the game. Our feet - we just seemed to keep slipping. The ball didn’t stick, just the little things that we wanted to get right didn’t seem to happen.
“You can’t take that from Cuala, the conditions were the same for them so it was one of those days and some of our established players didn’t get going and didn’t get into the game.
“Unfortunately this was the game it happened to us this year of all games, but you move on. You dust yourself down and we are just disappointed for the supporters really we didn’t give them a bit more to cheer about. As the song goes, it’s a long way from Clare to here and it’s a long way back again.”
Neither side could feel they did themselves justice in a disjointed first-half played on a greasy surface. It was 0-2 to 0-1 in favour of Cuala when Colm Cronin read a break well on 14 minutes to solo through for a goal. Even then the teams didn’t settle, late scores from Cuala made it 1-7 to 0-4 at the half, with plenty of mistakes being made.
The game twisted on the resumption when Cuala’s keeper Sean Brennan made a superb save to keep Pearse Lillis’s shot; the Dublin side hit three on the bounce in response before Ballyea responded with Niall Deasy’s frees cutting the gap to six on 45 minutes.
Deasy’s close-range goal made it 1-10 to 1-14 with nine minutes left, but as they’d done all day, Cuala scored with more ease in response.
Darragh O’Connell almost goaled from the puck out after Deasy’s goal but had to be content with a point, but in the 55th minute Cuala had their second goal, a fine solo effort from Jake Malone, and the game was as good as over. Cuala finished with a flourish, hitting four points on the spin.
There’ll be a good deal of focus on how Cuala handled Ballyea talisman Tony Kelly, particularly given how central he was to their wins over Glen Rovers and St Thomas in the previous two games. Manager Kenny put John Sheanon on Kelly, Hurler and Young Hurler of the Year, and the Dublin man had the better of proceedings, even outscoring the Clare man.
“If you didn’t recognise that threat...” said Kenny. “Tony Kelly is in the top five hurlers in Ireland. When he carries the ball up the field and he injects that pace and the skill level he has, it usually ends up with a score.
“The way we looked at it was, if he went back into the half-back line we’d kind of let the system deal with him, our half-forward line and our players up the field would be so hungry to get on the ball that we’d minimise the amount of ball he’d get on there but once he travelled up the field we had to make sure there was someone picking him up. An outstanding talent like that obviously could do damage to us.”
He could have, but Cuala never allowed that to happen. Afterwards, Sheanon himself spoke about the implications of the win for Dublin hurling, and county manager Ger Cunningham will surely welcome the Cuala contingent back with open arms as the national league winds down.
In a wider context, an All-Ireland Club title won by a dozen points suggests brighter days ahead for Dublin hurling when this year’s league is long forgotten.
N. Deasy (1-6, 6 frees); P. Lillis (0-2); G. Brennan, J. Murphy (0-1 each).
D. Treacy (0-9, 8 frees); C. Cronin 1-1; J. Malone 1-0, D. O’Connell (0-3); C. O’Callaghan, J. Sheanon (0-2 each); M. Schutte, C. Shannon (0-1 each);
K. Sheehan; J. Neylon, J. Browne, B. Carrig; G. O’Connell, P. Flanagan, J. Murphy; T. Kelly, S. Lineen (c); N. Deasy, G. Brennan, C. Doohan; PJ Connolly, D. Burke, P. Lillis.
M. O’Leary for Connolly (35); D. Egan for Burke (40); B. Murphy for Neylon (55); M. Coughlan for Lineen (57).
S. Brennan; O. Gough (c), Cian O’Callaghan, S. Timlin; S. Moran, P. Schutte, J. Malone; J. Sheanon, D. O’Connell; C. Waldron, C. Cronin, D. Treacy; S. Treacy, Con O’Callaghan, M. Schutte.
C. Sheanon for Waldron (45); R. Tierney for Timlin (60); N. Kenny for Cronin (61).
F. Horgan (Tipperary).