Brian Carrigg, nestled among the Ballyea subs at Cusack Park, almost floored Eoghan Donnellan when Gary Brennan crashed the sliotar to the Thurles Sarsfields net four minutes into second-half stoppage time of their epic Munster club semi-final.
Donnellan had suffered two fractured vertebrae in a freak training ground accident a fortnight previous and Carrigg nearly inflicted further injury during the excitement of Brennan’s equaliser.
Carrigg had started the afternoon in Ennis at left corner-back for Ballyea and in the company of Lar Corbett. Although plagued by a dead leg in the days following their historic first Clare final victory, he’d been declared fit to take his place on the starting team for the club’s provincial championship debut. A collision 10 minutes in, coupled with a wild pull by a man wearing blue, saw the dead leg force the defender ashore.
The Clare champions found themselves five adrift of Thurles Sars with two minutes’ regulation time remaining, but Carrigg, sandwiched between the injured Martin O’Leary and Donnellan in the stand, never believed the game had gone from them. It wasn’t the first time he’d been confronted with a five-point deficit and the sandglass working against Ballyea.
A disastrous 2008 campaign had plunged the club into the relegation final and within one hour of a return to the intermediate ranks.
“We very nearly went down that day,” recalls Carrigg. “We played Éire Óg in Clarecastle and with five minutes remaining, we were five down and it wasn’t looking at all good. We pulled it out of the fire and it was a brilliant win to keep us up senior. It was just brilliant to keep going and preserve our senior status. In hindsight, it was so important that we didn’t make the drop.”
From the team which took to the field against Thurles Sars, only 29-year-old Carrigg and goalkeeper Kevin Sheehan were the survivors from Clarecastle eight seasons ago.
“I’d be hugely appreciative of what we’ve achieved this year and where we find ourselves because I’ve seen the barren years. I hurled with a lot of lads who would love to be in my position now. Most of the lads I started off playing with played in the 2003 county final, a day when we were well beaten by Clarecastle.
“I was 16 breaking onto the team the following year and you think there are great days ahead. It just didn’t turn out that way. We had to wait 13 years to get back to the final. You never think it is going to take that long.”
The club, during the end of the last decade, were content to plod along at senior level; early fallers but never so early into the race that relegation again darkened their door. It wasn’t until 2013, when the team was taken over by players who had delivered U21 A and B titles in the two years previous, that there was a significant shift in attitude. The semi-final was reached in 2013 and they became permanent fixtures at the business end of the local championship in the ensuing years.
“The likes of Tony Kelly, Paul Flanagan, Jack Browne, Cathal Doohan, Niall Deasy, and Martin O’Leary came along together, the team took on a different look as a result, and we started to go places. At the start of the year, the thought of winning a county championship was huge for us. When it happened, it was so surreal. Going into Munster there was no expectation on us, but we wanted to do our club and country proud.”
Fast-forward to the 64th minute of that semi-final: “I’ve seen Gary Brennan make that run countless times this year. I nearly jumped up on top of Eoghan Donnellan before remembering that he was only just out of hospital. It was incredible stuff. We were five points down against Clonlara with a quarter of an hour to go in the drawn county final and we pulled it back. We never give in.”
Carrigg, an employee with Stryker in Limerick, hails from Ballynacally, the chief village feeding into Clondegad football club. Living at home means he’s been in the thick of the build-up this week.
“It isn’t only in Ballyea that there’s massive excitement. You can feel it here and I’d say it’s the same in Kilmihil and Cooraclare. We’re all the one really. I know I am from the football area but all the football lads from the area would always be giving you encouragement and asking you how the hurling is going. We took our chance when the county final came around and hopefully we can grab this latest opportunity because you just don’t know when you might get another crack.”
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