Ballyea (Clare) 2-14 St Thomas’ (Galway) 1-19: A common-or-garden hammering changed to a nailbiter on Saturday night when Clare champions Ballyea, cruising through an All-Ireland club semi-final in a chilly Semple Stadium, saw a 13-point second-half lead cut to the minimum as the game entered injury-time.
The 4,206 spectators were anticipating extra-time when Clare star Tony Kelly popped up with an insurance point to halt St Thomas’ stirring comeback. The Galway men had only managed 0-3 in the first half, but their challenge ignited with a fourth-quarter burst of 1-7 on the bounce.
An injury-time goal by Thomas’ sub Anthony Kelly — not to be confused with his namesake for Ballyea — made it a one-point game: little wonder Ballyea selector Fergal Hegarty was talking about visiting a cardiologist after the game.
“My overriding emotion is relief at the moment,” said Hegarty. “We’d have to look at the video to see what unfolded in the last 15 minutes. They got a lot of momentum and when we went two points up at the end they could still have gotten in for another goal.
“We’re relieved, but having said that our lads played fantastic hurling for 45 minutes. We emptied the tank. It’s hard to manage it, and we haven’t played for so long — neither have they, to be fair.”
Ballyea were by far the better team for three-quarters of the game, thanks to the drive of Tony Kelly and the accuracy of Niall Deasy up front. They were 0-10 to 0-3 up at half-time and continued in that vein after the break.
Deasy finished the game with 1-11 and his goal with 20 minutes to go, after cutting in from the right, looked like the nail in the coffin for St Thomas — at that point it was 1-14 to 0-5.
Conor Cooney, however, found the net with a close-in free and then an improbable seven points in a row made things interesting.
With four points between them and the clock past 60 minutes, Anthony Kelly’s flicked rebound cut the difference to a point, but up popped the other Kelly, on the Clare side, to make it safe.
“We’re very disappointed, of course,” said St Thomas manager John Burke afterwards. “We probably left it too late altogether to up our game, but fair play to Ballyea. They’re a very good team and were 100 miles an hour from the very start, in fairness.
“We had the bit of a lay-off which probably didn’t help, but that’s not an excuse.
“I’m still proud of the lads. They fought to the bitter end and they never gave up, they never gave up. I know we didn’t perform early on, but I knew they could hurl the way they did in the second half, when they produced it — it’s just a pity we didn’t do a little bit more in the first half, we could have been a little bit closer.”
Hegarty was happy to take the positives from Ballyea’s powerful spell: “We got great scores and were seven up at half-time, and full value for that, albeit they did miss a few frees.
“We had a few more opportunities but the last pass just didn’t stick or we might have been in for more scores. Maybe we were too far ahead — sometimes in racing they say the horse out in front idles, and there might have been something of that.
”Credit Thomas too, they were awesome and for a while everything they hit seemed to be going over. When a team gets momentum like that everything seems to go right for them. Everything seemed to be going wrong for us, but the positive is we’re in an All-Ireland final.”
The former Clare star said Kelly was the ideal player to avail of their last chance.
“The right man had the ball, but Niall Deasy gave an exhibition from frees and play, and we got other great scores — Cathal Doohan got a great score when Thomas had got six on the bounce.
“Things were definitely going away from us at that time so that was a great score to get, out on the sideline. It was good to see those scores and we got good scores from work we’ve done on the training ground.”
They’ll have to wait to see whether Slaughtneil or Cuala will face them on St Patrick’s Day — and Hegarty is hoping to keep their inter-county players fresh for that date, which may mean missing some NHL games.
“The other two teams are serious teams, we’ll look at them in the next couple of weeks,” he said.
“We’ll have to sit down and discuss that with the (Clare) lads, but they’ve been very accommodating with us and we’d like to think we’re the same.
“All-Ireland finals don’t come around too often in Clare, and they certainly don’t come around too often in Ballyea.
Scorers for Ballyea:
N. Deasy (1-11, 0-8 frees); T. Kelly (0-3); G. O’Connell, PJ Connolly (0-2 each); C. Doohan (0-1).
Scores for St Thomas:
Darragh Burke (0-8, 0-2 65s, 0-5 frees); C. Cooney (free), A. Kelly (1-0 each); K. Burke (0-2); E. Burke, S. Cooney, J. Regan, D. Cooney (0-1 each).
K. Sheehan, J. Neylon, J. Browne, B. Carrig, G. O’Connell, P. Flanagan, J. Murphy, T. Kelly, S. Lineen (c), N. Deasy, G. Brennan, C. Doohan, P.J. Connolly, D. Burke, P. Lillis.
M. O’Leary for D. Burke (33)
P. Skehill (c), F. Burke, C. Burke, E. Burke, D. Cooney, S. Cooney, J. Regan, David Burke, B. Burke, C. Cooney, Darragh Burke, D. Sherry, B. Farrell, S. Skehill, K. Burke.
A. Kelly for Sherry (inj., 21); M. Caulfield for Farrell (44)
S. Cleere (Kilkenny)
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