Gearóid O’Connell’s job on Sunday was to keep an eye on Patrick Horgan. Easier said than done, mind, given the latter’s form in progressing Glen Rovers to a first Munster final in four decades.
In between rendering Horgan scoreless from play, O’Connell roamed up Tom Semple’s field to deliver three outstanding points. He also provided the pass which put Pearse Lillis in the clear for the game’s opening goal.
That, in essence, is the level of confidence from which this Ballyea team is currently operating.
Half-forward Niall Deasy watched each one of O’Connell’s booming efforts sail between the posts and didn’t bat an eyelid. Go back to the county final replay, an afternoon where each member of the full-back line raised a white flag from open play. With this team, anything is possible.
On Sunday, May 15, Ballyea fell to Éire Óg in the opening round of the Clare championship. It wasn’t even close. The Ennis outfit hit their opponents for 3-26 and were nine clear at the finish. Had Robbie Hogan’s charges not overcome Newmarket-on- Fergus next time out, the remainder of their summer would have been spent fighting a relegation battle.
So, what’s changed in the space of six months?
“Look around, look at the amount of county lads we have,” said Deasy. “Look at the amount of lads who have won Fitzgibbon Cup medals, Division 2 football medals. Tony [Kelly], Jack [Browne] and Gearóid [O’Connell] won hurling league medals this year. They are all winners on that team. The confidence has always been there. It was just a matter of finding it.”
Deasy was part of the club team which made history in 2012 by winning a first county U21 A title. On that occasion, Kilmaley were dispatched with 10 points to spare. He was right half-forward the following year as Ballyea went as far as the semi-final post in the county senior championship. Not since 2003 had they reached the penultimate hurdle. They were coming.
Three years on, they’ve finally got around to delivering on the potential within this group - maiden Clare and Munster crowns annexed within the space of 21 days. It is one of those things that we always thought we’d do, but never really at the same time, if you know what I mean. It is just a dream come true.
“We still haven’t gotten over winning the county title and now we have a Munster title as well. It is unbelievable. The year just keeps going on and on for us. It’ll be a couple of weeks before all this sinks in.”
If they’re pinching themselves this week, they certainly had cause to do so when drawing breath at half-time on Sunday. 1-10 to 0-4 in front in their first provincial final appearance.
“We really didn’t expect it to unfold like that,” he continues. “We don’t have any real game plan. We are allowed go out and do whatever we want, so things like Gearóid hitting three points from centre-back happens every day. It is just about lads having the freedom. Everyone is enjoying playing.”
Paul Flanagan, more than most, enjoys playing at Semple Stadium. His brightest afternoons are making a habit of materialising on the Thurles turf. The 24-year old captained Clare to Munster minor glory there in 2010. There was the 2012 All-Ireland U21 final win. A year later, he was back as captain as the Banner defended their U21 crown.
Sunday, though, in the colours of his native Ballyea, was “second to none”.
“It is gone into a different zone altogether. What it meant to people a couple of weeks ago to win a county final, and now we are champions of Munster. We were watching the television for so long and the brilliant club teams of the last couple of years. To be considered among them is the best ever. It is second to none. The days we had here in 2012 and 2013 with Clare were really, really good but this is something special altogether.”
Flanagan, too, was somewhat taken aback at their opening half an hour’s effort. They’d managed 11 scores and limited their opponents to four. They’d held the Glen scoreless for the closing 12 minutes of the half and had conceded only two scores from play.
“For a lot of lads, this was their first day in Thurles. We were walking around beforehand and a couple of the lads were taking pictures of the pitch. We took it on from the start. Lads showed no fear. We’ve been living out of each other for the last couple of months. We’ve really bonded. This is the stuff of dreams.”
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