It’s the most wonderful time of the year. For the likes of Ballyea anyway, although Tony Kelly would prefer if there was more of a festive hue about this evening’s All-Ireland club semi-final.

See, it’s just that things are intensive enough as it is for the 2013 hurler of the year, what with new management in Clare and Fitzgibbon Cup hurling on his agenda. Ballyea rightly benefit from the vast majority of his focus but he would prefer to give them everything.

Last week, he played 55 minutes for Brian Lohan’s University of Limerick side as they handsomely beat Cork IT before sitting out Thursday’s win over NUI Galway. All the while, the communication lines have been well and truly open with Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor in the county set-up.

Yes, he can manage, but give him the calendar year season now. “I’m trying to balance Fitzgibbon Cup which is after starting last week, and our semi-final. You’d probably prefer to run it before Christmas. You’re trying to balance a lot of teams.

“With the county team being back in January as well, preparing for the year ahead, you’ve to try and balance being around them with the club that comes number one being so far into the All-Ireland series. If you weren’t caught up in too many things you might be looking forward to the break.

“It is a long year. Our club players started last January and they are going right the way through until February. There isn’t much break for them. Win or lose (v St Thomas), they’re preparing for May again. So it is a roll-on of a year, depending on how far you get.

“The ideal situation would probably be to run it off in the one year, especially with the extra competitions. For myself, trying to prepare for Fitzgibbon Cup in the middle of it, there is a lot of activity in January, February.”

Kelly knows he was taking a risk lining out for UL last week. “There would probably be a good few lads in Cuala, St Thomas and that in the same boat. So, for them lads there are decisions to be made as well. There is a lot of activity for players at this time of the year. I suppose you only get this chance with your club once in a lifetime and if you were to go out and pick up an injury, you may never get back this chance again.”

The anticipation that’s built since beating Glen Rovers in November’s Munster final is not something he would swap too quickly, though. “Getting to an All-Ireland semi-final, winning a first county and Munster club, there is obviously excitement and enthusiasm around the club. Up training, there are young lads hurling off the wall, that kind of thing. It has brought a uniqueness to the parish over the last three months.”

It obviously means more winning with Ballyea than with Clare. “Celebrating after, you’re with family — mother, father, cousins, people you’ve grown up with. It is extra special. After the county final and again in the Munster final, you’re surrounded by people you know so well. Comparing it to the county scene, although it’s fantastic, you’re surrounded by people you wouldn’t have grown up with or don’t know that well, supporter wise. Winning with your club, that five or 10 minutes on the field after, to see the joy that it brings to those people you know so well within your own community is fantastic.”

Ballyea’s small size combined with their massive contribution to both county football and hurling panels may militate against them repeating their Munster feat in the future. Hence the need to make the most of now.

“We may never get to a county semi-final, let alone an All-Ireland semi-final, again,” stresses Kelly. “That’s just the way sport goes. When you get this far, you’ve got to knuckle down and realise this is our only chance.

“We’d great momentum built up before Christmas. It was fantastic to win a Munster club. Now you’re just one step away from Croke Park. That realisation has hit home coming back from the Christmas break that this is our one chance with this group of players.

“We’ve never had a group of players like this before. There are no guarantees we’ll ever be successful again.”

Against a proven side in St Thomas’, their task becomes that more arduous. Kelly’s talent is rightly being extolled but then David Burke is a two-time and reigning All-Star midfielder. “David’s up there as one of the top two or top three midfielders in the country. Dating back from when he first came on the Galway panel, he’s been absolutely outstanding for both Galway and St Thomas’ when they won the All-Ireland club a few years ago.

“I’ve watched a good bit of their games, the most impressive thing about them is their collectiveness as a group. They work savagely hard and they have the hurlers to back it up as well. They have some outstanding hurlers, Conor Cooney there, a lot of Burkes there. Even their club players you’d be impressed with, there isn’t that much of a drop off between the county lads and the club lads, they are all able to hurl.

“But, as I said, the most impressive thing about them is their collectiveness and willingness to work for one another. That’s what we pride ourselves on as well, all working hard and putting in the hard graft. I think Saturday is going to come down to the last five or 10 minutes.”

AIB All-Ireland club SHC semi-final

St Thomas (Galway) v Ballyea (Clare)

Today: Semple Stadium, 5pm

Referee: S. Cleere, Kilkenny

TV: TG4 (live)


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