Tony Kelly the kingpin as Ballyea refuse to die against Thurles Sarsfields in Munster hurling final

Ballyea (Clare) 4-18 Thurles Sarsfields (Tipperary) 1-22 (After extra-time)
Every now and again the provincial championships throw up a classic - that was the case yesterday in Ennis, where Ballyea stormed back from a seven-point deficit to beat Thurles Sarsfields in extra-time.

The drama was late and early - Ballyea hit two goals in the first ten minutes but seemed doomed to defeat until Gary Brennan’s last-gasp goal gave us another twenty minutes. 

In that time the Clare men were irresistible, and irresistibly led by midfielder Tony Kelly. The attendance of 2,413 were frozen by a bitter wind but certainly warmed by the fare.

Ballyea coach Fergal Hegarty was succinct in his synopsis.

“We got an unbelievable start, the two goals, but I suppose a week was a short time to turn things around but the energy from the two goals kept us going.

“Halfway through the second half it looked like it was going away from us, but these lads have shown unbelievable character, resilience, call it what you want, all year, and they showed it in abundance there.

“Gary’s goal was an unbelievable goal, to take it on from where he took it, and to hit it from his weaker side to the top of the net - that was unbelievable.” 

The game certainly seemed to be proceeding along expected lines after Ballyea’s early burst. They had those two goals inside the opening ten minutes but then Sars, as befits a side with so much experience, got to grips with the game. 

In Padraic Maher they had a dominant force to marshal their defence and when Aidan McCormack’s speculative shot bounced into the net it sparked a scoring run of 1-6 without reply.

At the break Sars were 1-11 to 2-4 up and Ballyea’s talisman, Tony Kelly, was peripheral to proceedings. 

With Pa Bourke and the hardworking McCormack going well up front, by the third quarter Sars were leading 1-17 to 2-7 and looking good for the Munster final.

Credit to Ballyea, then - Kelly started to push forward and hit four of their last six points, some of those superb efforts on the run. 

A Bourke free with time almost up seemed to have done enough for Sars, putting them five ahead but Kelly and Pearse Lillis pointed and then Clare football star Gary Brennan struck - he won the ball on the wing, crashed through the middle and buried the equalising goal with time up.

Extra time. Nobody complaining, despite the cold.

Hegarty said his charges were looking forward to the additional twenty minutes: “There were lads yelping - they’re a gas crowd, they never get too carried away. They were smiling and joking - I said ‘there’s no yellow cards in this half’ and Jack Browne said ‘why are you looking at me’ - that was the devil may care attitude they had.” 

Kelly conintued his rich vein of form, hitting three points in that opening ten minutes, and Brennan placed sub. Damien Burke for a vital goal.

Sars looked dead and buried, but in the second half of extra time they pushed Padraic Maher up front, and when he added a rousing goal to Bourke and Cahill points, another day out looked likely.

Cue Niall Deasy, however, to make the game safe for the Clare champions. The wing-forward held his nerve with a late free, 65 and a point from play to spark jubilation among the home support.

“Munster championships don’t come around too often, so I’m delighted for them,” said Hegarty.

“It’s a famous win not just for Ballyea but for Clare hurling.

“The final - we’re looking forward to it, we’ll get a lot of momentum from today, we have two weeks but we’ll enjoy it.” 

Ballyea’s manager Robbie Hogan celebrates

Hegarty described Tony Kelly as “the best player in Clare I’ve ever seen, in my time, and is arguably one of the best hurlers of this generation, that’s undoubted.

“But it’s the character he has, when the need is greatest, he’ll come up with the scores. And the scores he came up with, one was better than the next, it was Roy of the Rovers stuff.

“Gary had been working hard, he’d caught a few balls and he ran at them - the man is a fitness fanatic and he could have played another game there.”

Scorers for Thurles: P. Bourke (0-9, 0-7 frees); A. McCormack (1-4); T. Doyle (0-3), P. Maher (1-0); C. Lanigan (0-2); S. Cahill, J. Maher, R. Maher, M. O’Brien (0-1 each).

Scorers for Ballyea: T. Kelly (1-10, 1-0 pen, 0-1 65, 0-3 frees); P. Lillis, D. Burke (1-1 each); G. Brennan (1-0); N. Deasy (0-5, 0-3 frees, 0-1 65); PJ Connolly (0-1).

THURLES SARSFIELDS: P. McCormack, S. Maher, S. Lillis, R. Dwan, D. Maher, P. Maher (c), R. Maher, J. Maher, S. Cahill, B. McCarthy, A. McCormack, P. Bourke, C. Lanigan, T. Doyle, L. Corbett.

Subs: M. O’Brien for Lanigan (50); K. Dunne for Doyle (55); D. Kennedy for Lillis (60); C. Moloney for Corbett (inj., 61); Corbett for Moloney, Lanigan for O’Brien (all at start ET); J. Maher for Lanigan (HT, ET); C. Moloney for Kennedy (73).

BALLYEA: K. Sheehan, J. Neylon, J. Browne, B. Carrig, G. O’Connell, P. Flanagan, J. Murphy, T. Kelly, S. Lineen (c), N. Deasy, P.J. Connolly, C. Doohan, M. O’Leary, G. Brennan, P. Lillis.

Subs: D. Burke for O’Leary (inj.,4); D. Egan for Carrig (inj., 10); A. Keane for Connolly, (47).

Referee: D. Kirwan (Cork)

A minute’s silence was observed before the game in memory of the late Eugene McNamara of Eire Og, Ennis.

Main man:

Padraic Maher dominated much of the proceedings and got a fine goal in extra-time, but the kudos go to Tony Kelly, who stormed into the game when it was there to be won.

Sideline superior:

Ballyea deserve huge credit - they lost two players to injury in the opening 10 minutes but managed to hang on; their management deserve top marks for good use of Gary Brennan’s size and switching free-taking duties to Niall Deasy.

Turning point:

In a game of this many twists and turns, the decisive moment was Gary Brennan’s goal - little was on when he won the ball but his bravery and accuracy got Ballyea that extra 20 minutes, which got them to the Munster Club final.

Haven’t seen that before:

Ballyea making a Munster Club final. For a team which had never gotten a Clare county title before last weekend, the year is certainly ending with a flourish for the men in black and amber.

Man in black:

Diarmuid Kirwan didn’t endear himself to the home support when he waved play on for Padraic Maher’s extra time goal - Ballyea’s Jack Browne looked like he was fouled in the lead-up - but the game was played in the right spirit.

What’s next:

Sars lick their wounds and think of next year. Ballyea must now prepare for a first Munster Senior Club final.



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