GAA Talking Points: Can Kilmacud achieve the unimaginable and win a Leinster double? 

Can Kilmacud – and Brian Sheehy, their only dual player – achieve the unimaginable for a club on Sunday in Croke Park?
GAA Talking Points: Can Kilmacud achieve the unimaginable and win a Leinster double? 

DUAL COMMITMENT: Kilmacud Crokes' Davy Crowe celebrates after the game with Brian Sheehy. Pic: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Can Kilmacud achieve the unimaginable?

At the end of normal time of the St Finbarr’s-Kilcoo All-Ireland club football semi-final in January, as hordes of St Finbarr’s fans made their way down from the stand to applaud the players and management as they came out of the dressing room for extra-time, the image instantly rekindled memories of the Barrs’ storied and gloried past.

For generations, multitudes of ‘Barrs supporters and kids had heard the stories of a time when the ‘Barrs were kings of the club game, in both codes. St Finbarr’s were heroic when losing to Kilcoo after extra-time, and, while the club still had some distance to travel before they could return to that glorious natural habitat, at least the current generation finally got to experience what living there was really like.

For the first time since that golden period of the 1970s and 1980s, that powerful symbiosis of history and confidence, married with ability and talent, was rekindled in the ‘Barrs. The footballers had rediscovered it in recent years, before the hurlers finally tapped into that magnetic force this season.

Of course, the ‘Barrs are nowhere near the place they once routinely dominated when regularly winning county, Munster and All-Ireland titles in both codes; between 1974 and 1984, the ‘Barr’s won 10 senior county championships, six in hurling, four in football.

In the same period they won seven Munster titles (four football and three hurling). They also contested five All-Ireland finals and won four of them — two in football, two in hurling. In 50 years of the competition, no other club has won All-Irelands in both codes. In 1981, the ‘Barrs nearly did it in the same year.

They lost the hurling final to Ballyhale Shamrocks before going on to defeat Walterstown from Meath in the football final. It was the ‘Barrs’ second football title in-a-row. Only UCD had won back-to-back football titles before then. Only Crossmaglen Rangers and Corofin (who won three in-a-row) have managed it since.

The ‘Barrs were aiming to win the double in Cork this year but they lost the football final two weeks after winning the hurling. In a golden period for club doubles around the country (there were four last year, and three this year), Loughmore-Castliney and Kilmacud Crokes tried to do the senior double in Munster and Leinster last year but Loughmore lost both games, while Kilmacud lost the hurling semi-final to Clough-Ballycolla before winning the football title.

After winning the All-Ireland Intermediate hurling title and reaching the senior football final last year, Naas had a rattle at both senior competitions this season. A year on from having beaten Naas in that football final, Kilmacud have done something that only a handful of teams have managed in the provinces – reach both finals in the same year.

Winning the two is a whole different ordeal though, that nobody outside of the ‘Barrs and Slaughtneil have managed. Portlaoise almost pulled it off in 1987. At the end of November, they drew with Parnell’s from Dublin in the Leinster football final in Newbridge. The following week, Portlaoise were in control of the hurling final in Croke Park until Rathnure won the match with a late goal. Two weeks later, on December 20th, the Portlaoise dual players made up for that disappointment when beating Parnell’s in the replay by two points.

Slaughtneil have never won an All-Ireland but they are unique in that they are the only club to have won the provincial double on two occasions – 2016 and 2017. Kilmacud though, are trying to reach a whole new landmark again in seeking to win both titles on the same day.

So can Kilmacud – and Brian Sheehy, their only dual player – achieve the unimaginable for a club on Sunday in Croke Park?

Can Ballyea silence the Gunners?

At the end of the Ballyea-Ballygunner Munster quarter-final in Ennis last November, Niall Deasy drove a penalty to the Ballyea net and a horde of young Ballyea supporters behind the Friary goal lit a flare which illuminated the gray backdrop of the afternoon.

As the flare was fired onto the pitch, it caught fire and thick plumes of smoke began billowing across the goal. By that stage, Ballyea had turned over the puckout and won another close-in free. Deasy played it short to Martin O’Leary, who buried it.

Nobody was getting carried away or anticipating a Lazarus-type comeback but, in any case, Ballygunner ruthlessly suppressed any such notions. Another goal from Billy O’Keeffe, followed by a handful of points extinguished those hopes as quickly as the fast-burning flare.

Ballygunner’s final winning margin was 17 points but it could have been even more. Along with the concession of those two late goals, Ballygunner only had a 56% conversion rate, but they also could have had three more goals only for three excellent saves from Ballyea’s Barry Coote.

Ballyea only got off 17 shots, 24 less than Ballygunner. The Clare champions only managed six shots from play.

Not having the injured Tony Kelly was a massive loss but Kelly was back by the time Ballyea launched their assault on retaining Clare for the first in their history this season. They had already qualified for the quarter-finals before their last group game against Cratloe but more hard questions were asked when Ballyea suffered a 14-point whipping.

VITAL COG: Ballyea's Tony Kelly celebrates after beating the 'Barrs in the semi-final. Pic: INPHO/Evan Treacy
VITAL COG: Ballyea's Tony Kelly celebrates after beating the 'Barrs in the semi-final. Pic: INPHO/Evan Treacy

It was Ballyea’s first championship defeat since September 2020 but they were extremely poor that evening in Ennis. They didn’t function up front while the absence of Gary Brennan was blatantly obvious.

It didn’t look like Brennan would play in 2022 but he finally came back before Ballyea played Cratloe again in the semi-final. By that stage, Ballyea had also clearly changed their style, returning to their more direct game rather than the shorter style, particularly in playing out from defence, which had broken down too often in the earlier rounds, especially against Cratloe in August.

By the time the sides met again in early October, Ballyea were a different animal. Despite being reduced to 14 men after only 17 minutes, they blew Cratloe away with their intensity, physicality and controlled aggression early on.

Their performance in the final against Éire Óg was even more vintage Ballyea. Trailing by three points in the 59th minute, Ballyea landed the last four points to hunt down Éire Óg. Ballyea don’t do panic, similar to their previous three final victories in 2016, 2018 and 2021 when coming from behind late on to snatch victory. When the pressure was really on against Éire Óg Ballyea knew deep down that they would grind it out. When the game went to the wire again two weeks ago against St Finbarr’s, Ballyea believed they would win. Again.

Ballyea are desperate to atone for such a poor performance against Ballygunner last year because it was also a stain on their rich history in this competition. Ballyea won Munster in 2016, while Ballygunner needed a last-minute goal to take their 2018 semi-final to extra-time, which Ballygunner eventually won in Walsh Park after two periods of extra-time.

The biggest challenge for Ballyea this afternoon will be to stay within reach of Ballygunner down that home straight. If they can though, they will believe that anything is possible.

Old World takes on New Order in Ulster 

Twelve minutes into the 2017 Ulster club hurling semi-final, the provincial past masters looked to set to restore the Old World regime from the New Order. Dunloy Cuchullains led Slaughtneil by 1-4 to 0-1 but, suddenly the New Order reaffirmed how much they had redrawn this terrain.

Over the next 12 minutes, Slaughtneil blitzed Dunloy with an unanswered 1-8 to completely change the game’s momentum. From there to the end of the match, Slaughtneil just controlled the pace and tempo with supreme game management.

DANGERMAN: Slaughtneil's Jerome McGuigan celebrates scoring a goal against Portaferry. Pic: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo
DANGERMAN: Slaughtneil's Jerome McGuigan celebrates scoring a goal against Portaferry. Pic: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

The Derry champions eventually won by seven points but a late Paul Shiels' goal added an extra layer of makeup to the scoreboard for Dunloy.

There was a time when Dunloy ruled Ulster with an iron fist; between 1990 and 2009, the club won ten provincial titles. Dunloy only won their first county title in 1990 but every time they won Antrim over the following two decades, they added an Ulster title. During that golden period, Dunloy also became the first club to win four Ulster titles in-a-row, which they managed between 2000 and 2004.

Loughgiel will always be regarded as royalty in Ulster hurling circles because they are the only club from the province to have won an All-Ireland, a status which is embellished by having won it twice. Dunloy though, have still always occupied a special place in the hearts of the hurling community, as no Ulster club has reached – or lost – as many All-Ireland finals (four).

That connection was first established in 1995 when Dunloy should have beaten Birr in the drawn decider before losing the replay. Over the following nine years, Dunloy lost further All-Ireland finals to Sixmilebridge, Birr and Newtownshandrum.

Dunloy continued to be a force in Ulster, winning two more titles in 2007 and 2009. But then Loughgiel took over in Antrim at the outset of the last decade and Dunloy didn’t win another county title again until 2017. A young team has evolved and matured ever since, winning five of the last six Antrim titles.

Yet their experience in Ulster in that time has been drastically different from what it was in the past; Dunloy have lost to Slaughtneil on the three occasions they have met since 2017.

The terrain is vastly different now because Slaughtneil have ruled it so ruthlessly. 

And Dunloy are desperate to reclaim it.

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