Ups and downs. Every club experiences peaks and troughs of success, but how often have you read a variation of the declaration “while the seniors were going well we took our eye off the ball with the underage” to explain how one-time high achievers go years without silverware?
Ballygunner of Waterford are trying to ensure they don’t go through boom and bust. Their senior hurlers recently picked up a fifth county title in a row, and they play Ballyea of Clare in the Munster club tomorrow (Walsh Park, 1.30pm), but chairman Gerry Cullinan says they’re focused on youth to keep the supply lines going.
“Without a doubt. Ballygunner have had lean periods in the past. In the nineties, we won three senior titles in a row, which was great, but at that point our underage structure was pretty poor.
“We were in the second division in practically all competitions, and we weren’t winning those either. In one year I remember, we had one team — at U14 — competing in the A division, and they lost every game they played, and none of our B teams won a championship either.
“So we built a structure to improve things from the ground up and that has worked out well. We’re very conscious of that and we focus on it, but we’re also fortunate.
“There’s a tradition here, we have many former players involved, we have a lot of people who move into Waterford from other hurling areas who get involved, and we also have a big population to pick from in the area. We have a lot of things going for us but our ambition is also to make the most of what we have.”
Is there a secret to their success? There is, says Cullinan.
“Hard work. That’s the magic formula. There’s no club team that puts in more than this club team. There are others who might do as much as our lads but no-one does more than we do in terms of preparation.
“The chance of having success makes that a bit easier, obviously, if you don’t have the prospect of success on the horizon it can be difficult.
“We’ve been there, too, but we’ve worked very hard for success.”
Are they enjoying that success now? Cullinan points out that the players’ focus means those outside the white lines can luxuriate in the wins as opposed to working towards the next game: “There’s probably a bit of both involved, for the likes of us — coaches and officers and so on — we can probably enjoy the occasions that bit more.
“Our focus is very much on ensuring we have good teams all the way up.
“We were lucky enough to win U16 and minor titles this year, which is a great source of pride for the club. But our other adult teams are doing reasonably well also.
“Our junior and intermediate teams didn’t win their championships but the intermediates train with the seniors and train as hard as the seniors, and the juniors train very hard also.
“Our attitude is to get the best possible outcome for all of our teams right up to senior. At that level the objective was to win a fifth county title in a row, that was at the back of our minds the whole time and the focus after that was on Midleton.”
“Now the focus is on tomorrow and we’re not looking beyond that.”
The experience of the seniors is a vital ingredient, he adds: “One game at a time, that’s their approach. You see that with good teams all the time. Anyone looking in from outside would have seen Na Piarsaigh doing so well in winning the Limerick final, and they have a very good record in the provincial competition, but I’m sure they don’t look beyond their next game .
“Going back to last year, for instance, we played Thurles Sarsfields and Sixmilebridge, two very good teams and two very close matches — we won both narrowly, just as with Midleton last weekend.
“When you’re talking about five hurling counties, then the champions of each county are bound to be good, and you have to expect a tough outing in every game.”
It helps to have a club legend as manager, of course.
“It’s not just that Fergal (Hartley) was a great hurler himself, though he’s one of the club’s three All-Stars, but as a manager he leaves no stone unturned. He does everything to perfection.
“He has a very good backroom team, they all work together and he leads by example. ”
They’ll need to work hard tomorrow against Ballyea, though the close call against Midleton last week was ideal preparation.
“It was — we’d had a break of three weeks since the county final, but I don’t really think that that was a factor. Certainly Midleton gave us exactly the kind of test we wanted, even though we didn’t enjoy it particularly when it was happening, when we felt we mightn’t win the game.
“But it’s exactly the kind of test you’d want heading into the next game, so I think it’ll certainly be a big help to us.
“Going back to last Sunday, we were expecting a tough game.
“Even though there were people around saying that because Midleton hadn’t won their own championship they wouldn’t be up for the challenge, that they mightn’t have the appetite for the Munster championship, we knew they would.
“And they did, too, we had a very tough game. We’re expecting the same tomorrow, because Clare teams have done well in the Munster club in the past.
“This particular team (Ballyea) have won the Munster club themselves just a couple of years ago, and they have one of the best hurlers in the game in Tony Kelly, though they’re not a one-man team by any means.
“We’re under no illusions, it’s going to be a tough game and we’ll need to be at our very best if we want to win — and that might still not be enough.”