There may be more vivid incarnations of optimism than a ticket tout prowling Gill’s Corner and environs for spare tickets ahead of the All-Ireland club final, but none come immediately to mind.
Markers of an event on a smaller scale than those of high summer were evident even on the approach to Croke Park, from the light-touch security on Jones’ Road to the (relative) calm of the hotel across the road from the stadium. If that tout was able to turn a profit on Borris-Ileigh versus Ballyhale Shamrocks (attended by 25,000-odd spectators) he should stand in the election for the Water Into Wine Party.
This is not to denigrate the club finals. Saying yesterday’s games — and Saturday’s — provide a welcome tonic for an Association that seems now to be at odds with itself much of the time and on almost every issue is a cliche, but no less true for that. The fact that none of the clubs on show yesterday came from urban areas seemed to underline that: an interesting comparison could have been spun out of determining which of the two villages was the emptier yesterday afternoon.
Both Ballyhale Shamrocks and Borris-Ileigh came to play, as they said in Jerry Maguire long ago. In the opening stages Borris tested Michael Fennelly with a shoulder, and when the ball swung down to the other end his brother Colin called ‘keeper James McCormack into action. All in the first minute. Up and running.
Before the game a lot of attention was paid to the performances of Brendan Maher for Borris: the Tipperary star was the driving force in his side’s progress to the final, playing as a nominal centre-back but ranging upfield when needed, a kind of Franz Beckenbauer in a white helmet.
For the All-Ireland, however, would he pick up TJ Reid or just stay in his general orbit? Long before the game Maher himself helpfully pointed out the array of attacking options Ballyhale enjoyed, and yesterday he played with the freedom to roam the field once more.
Borris benefited. Early on they led, and Ballyhale were the team missing scores. After ten minutes, however, the Kilkenny side acclimatised to the polar exactitude of the day and turned the screw: in the middle of the first half they hit four points in a row to stretch out to a lead they would never relinquish. In that time both Maher and Dan McCormack collected yellow cards as Ballyhale drove at the centre of the Tipperary side’s defence.
The difference? In first-half injury time Borris had a smell of half a possible opportunity that could maybe have been a goal — no more promising than that — but missed. From the puckout Ballyhale found TJ Reid, who pointed from long, long range: 0-10 to 0-6.
In the second half Ballyhale soaked up the pressure as Borris made the mistake that gnaws on a team’s confidence: shot after shot dropped into Dean Mason’s paw, the Ballyhale keeper not even discommoded by a low winter sun as the Canal End stand put him in a comforting shadow.
Given the two men outside him in the numbers 3 and 6 jerseys had seven All-Ireland senior medals in their pockets (county medals, that is: we can’t even count the club silverware), the narrative was unspooling itself along an expected line. Experience defeats newcomers, gallant triers come up short against the side who’ve seen it all.
Borris-Ileigh decided to stray from the script into improv with immediate results. In the last ten minutes, with Jerry Kelly and Brendan Maher leading the charge, they cut the Ballyhale lead to two. Against another side they might have gouged out a win, but against another side they wouldn’t have had to contend with TJ Reid.
It’s no surprise that Reid was the man who hit the two final points for Ballyhale, because that was when those two points were needed most. You could say his performance mirrored his team’s: he didn’t dominate the game totally, but when he needed to intervene he was irresistible. His last point was a free but his second-last was a leader’s score: Reid was decisive and purposeful, taking charge when another player might have left the ball to his teammate, finding the target when the score was needed.
The game ended with Borris still hunting an equaliser, unsurprisingly. And with Brendan Maher looking for the levelling goal, unsurprisingly. It wasn’t to be, though. Ballyhale weren’t completely clinical, but they were clinical enough.
“Ah sure we’re disappointed, obviously, after losing an All-Ireland final there are no easy words,” said Borris manager Johnny Kelly.
“But you have to actually give credit to Ballyhale. They’re an exceptional club, first of all, and the fact that they’ve just achieved their eighth All-Ireland final (win), I mean the mind boggles when you think of what they’ve achieved.
“All I can really add is my heartfelt congratulations to Michael Fennelly and all the Ballyhale guys. It’s a bitter disappointment for Borris-Ileigh, a small club that’s had a meteoric rise in the last two years.
“I hope that they gave some value for money over the last number of weeks and again today.”
That they did. The Borris-Ileigh pedigree goes back decades, and it was good to see the great Jimmy Finn in the Croke Park Hotel before the game: his club mates went out on their shields yesterday, refusing to accept defeat until the final whistle. What else would you want? What else would you expect?
Credit to the champions, too. Wilt Chamberlain hardly had the men from Ballyhale, Knockmoylan and Knocktopher in mind when he said that nobody roots for Goliath, but a club collecting back to back All-Ireland titles creates a powerful image in the minds of opponents.
However, manager Henry Shefflin kept matters in perspective after the match, paying tribute to the late Eugene Aylward, the Shamrocks player killed in a car crash last year: “There’s no doubt about it, to do back to back shows serious desire and Eugene’s passing gave them that want and desire.
“We had a photo inside last year of Eoin’s jersey (Eoin Doyle, who passed away in 2018) and as you’re probably aware Eugene’s jersey, number 19, wasn’t seen all year.
“But it’s inside with them in the dressing room and we got a picture with that jersey and the cup — I think that’s a great reflection of what the lads wanted to achieve today.”
Shefflin paid tribute to this players for the way they handled the Borris-Ileigh onslaught late on and parried questions about Michael Fennelly’s future with a practised ease.
Then he moved to more general matters: “I know there’s a lot of negativity in the press at the moment about the GAA and calendars and everything like this, but I must recognise today . . . “The Doyle and Aylward family and the Cullen family . . . Eoin Doyle and Eugene’s family were offered tickets by the GAA, a box, and they are all up there together, I’m sure very emotional and sad that their two boys are not there — but I think it was a great token by the GAA.
“That’s what makes it special. We can nitpick on this and that but behind it all, when they had those tragedies, when Borris-Ileigh had their tragedies, who do you turn to? You turn to your friends in the GAA community.”
It was a fitting reminder of the broader context even as the specifics of the game were being dissected. Everything that happens in Gaelic games — in any sport — exists in its own right and also as part of the bigger tapestry, a lesson hard learned in recent years by both Ballyhale and Borris-Ileigh.
On those terms a close reading of the circumstances of yesterday’s game would shine a light on many unexpected areas — into modern life in Ireland and into modern life in rural Ireland, grief and resilience and community spirit, family and pain and the restorative power of a day out at the match with the people you know best.
Credit to the ticket tout, then, for trying to get more people in to witness all of that. He was doing God’s work.