Thurles on a wintry afternoon bears little relation to the event flash of a midsummer championship game, but the jubilation at the final whistle is a constant. After the freezing fog yielded to a watery sun yesterday in Semple Stadium, the travellers from across the river Shannon were the happier.
Ballyea came into yesterday’s Munster club hurling final as unknowns, if not exactly outsiders. They had only recently collected a first Clare senior championship and needed a last-gasp goal to take experienced Thurles Sarsfields to extra-time in the semi-final.
By contrast, their opponents trailed a fair reputation as they came up the M8 from Cork. Glen Rovers put back-to-back county titles together this season and could look to a searching test against Patrickswell in their last outing. They had anniversaries - 100 years since their founding, 50 since collecting a first Munster club - which could be viewed as omens by the superstitious, and by those who appreciate consistency in their traditional powerhouses.
So much for predictions and omens, however gingerly they’re weighed. Ballyea dominated the proceedings from start to finish, apart from a spirited Glen rally in the third quarter.
At half-time, the Claremen were nine points ahead and cruising. They had outworked their opponents comprehensively, a simple expression of basic physics powering them ahead. In addition to hitting 1-10 they had also struck five wides, a fair indication of their superiority. Their goal was a reasonable illustration of how the opening 30 minutes went for Ballyea: Pearse Lillis fought hard to win a long ball out of defence and had plenty of work to do to create a goal chance, but he pinned his ears back, careered through the centre and finished well on 13 minutes to set his side on their way.
The Glen’s four points were an equally fair indication of how the half had gone for them, a half in which Tony Kelly caught the eye repeatedly. While the Glen would have been well aware of the threat posed by the Clare star, coping with the hard-driving midfielder proved too difficult. He flew through the middle and created overlaps and passing options at will, and helped himself to three points before the half-time whistle.
Further back the field, the co-operation between Ballyea defenders closed the routes to goal for Glen Rovers, who struggled to get the ball to stick up front. At the break it looked simply a matter of how much the Clare side would win by.
To be fair, the Glen threw down the gauntlet on the resumption. Corner-forward Conor Dorris reacted first to a breaking ball to hit the net, and within three minutes Dorris had his second goal from a similar range. With Horgan finding his range, by the three-quarter stage the margin was just three points, but the Glen needed a third goal to take their opponents out of their comfort zone.
Horgan faced a packed goal with a 20-metre free, but his shot whistled over the bar. The Glen’s goals had come from long deliveries to the square but Ballyea pulled their half-backs nearer goal and cut off that route.
The Glen also needed to make it difficult for Ballyea to emerge with the ball from defence but never succeeded in doing so, and the Claremen always had options in possession. Wing-back Gearóid O’Connell not only dominated his own zone, for instance, but hit three good points from distance. With that kind of example from their defenders Ballyea held their nerve up front, Niall Deasy’s eye never wavered, and they were well worth their eight-point winning margin.
For the Cork champions, warning signs were visible in previous games: late bursts, engineered by forward Patrick Horgan, had gotten them over the line on those occasions, but Horgan was well held by an industrious and physically imposing Ballyea half-back-line yesterday.
“We spoke at half-time and said that it couldn’t get any worse and that the only way was up,” said Glen captain Graham Callahan afterwards.
“In fairness to Conor Dorris, he took the whole game by the scruff of the neck and scored 2-1 before any other forward got on the board. We thought that we’d get back into it at that stage but they had too much of a cushion at half-time, and it was too big of a lead to give a class outfit like Ballyea.”
An unforgettable season spills onto another calendar for the Clare side. The positives from yesterday’s win include the display of Niall Deasy, who followed up a star performance in the semi-final by tormenting the Glen all day with his work rate across the middle of the field, maintaining his accuracy from placed balls as well.
“We never panicked all year,” said Ballyea captain Stan Lineen.
“In the county final or against Thurles, we kept the heads. We knew we had the players to drag a game back when it was going against us. Work hard and the results will come.”
Mind you, inexperience tells too. In their next game, they’ll face the experienced St Thomas’s of Galway, who will surely have noted a black and amber tendency to needless entanglements after the whistle had blown for frees.
Can Ballyea go all the way to the decider? For a side making its maiden voyage in the competition, they looked well-equipped yesterday to reach Croke Park on March 17, but February will tell a lot - for Ballyea and others
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved