WHEN Siobhan Madigan interviewed Colin Fennelly for RTÉ Radio 1 Sport just moments after yesterday’s All-Ireland club final, Fennelly spoke honestly and succinctly about how far this Ballyhale team have travelled, and the deep satisfaction considering the starting point of that Ballyhale odyssey.
After winning the 2015 All-Ireland club title, Ballyhale appeared to have ground to a halt. That 2015 squad had effectively broken up. O’Loughlin Gaels beat them in the 2016 county final. Their main leader, Henry Shefflin, had retired. ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick had packed up too. The young talent within the club had yet to come through but they weren’t exactly viewed as a golden generation, and there was no certainly no hint of a Ballyhale counter-revolution.
Fennelly said he feared he’d never win another county title but, in Kilkenny, and especially in Ballyhale, they appear to have the power to continually turn water into wine. To win successive All-Irelands is a massive achievement but for Ballyhale to win eight All-Irelands, and a raft of the current group to bag five of them, underlines how ordinary people can consistently achieve extraordinary things.
Ballyhale are no ordinary club. I heard Michael Fennelly also say to Siobhan Madigan afterwards that, despite having two more All-Irelands than their fathers and uncles, the auld fellas still have more county titles than the current crew. It’s easy to see where the motivation, the desire, the incessant quest for more comes from. It’s eternal, and it always will be in Ballyhale.
What other way could it be when a club manages to produce the greatest hurler of all time, and then, a handful of years later, they produce another player to challenge him? It’s no wonder when TJ used to go to the field in Ballyhale and hit the ball back to Henry when he was taking frees. And then when the most successful hurler in history retires from club hurling, he takes over the team and, in his first managerial job, leads the team to successive All-Irelands. Incredible stuff.
TJ Reid encapsulated that magic yesterday. The beauty of TJ, and of Ballyhale, is that, not only can he, and they, conjure magic, they always bring the workrate and cuteness to match that class and brilliance. When Borris-Ileigh came within two points late on, TJ scored steadied the ship with a point, before winning a free to push the margin out to four. His freetaking all afternoon was imperious.
Ballyhale never win too much underage but it doesn’t matter when young lads can step into that culture, surrounded by icons, and driven by a legend. Paddy Mullen didn’t start the All-Ireland semi-final but, similar to last year’s final, he did his stuff in Croke Park again, nailing three points in the first half.
Another young player, Dean Mason was rock solid in goal, fetching a hail of dropping sliotars all afternoon. Darragh Corcoran at corner-back was a contender for man-of-the-match. Adrian Mullen was ineffective for most of the game but when he got the chances late on, he bagged them. So did Evan Shefflin. Ballyhale have so many quality players that it’s nearly impossible to keep them all quiet.
They had the firepower that Borris just didn’t possess. Gerry Kelly was outstanding when scoring six points from play, as well as a sideline, and almost having an eighth, but he couldn’t carry the scoring load on his own. Seamus Burke at corner-back was also brilliant. Brendan Maher and Dan McCormack thundered into the match late on but if you were to say beforehand that Kelly and Burke would be Borris’ two best players, you’d have fancied the Shamrocks to win by ten points. In that context, it was testament to Borris to get so close to the champions.
Great teams smell vulnerability and when Ballyhale got a sniff of it in the ten minutes before half-time, after the inevitable Borris early storm had run out of puff, they went for the kill. In the blink of an eye, Ballyhale had opened up a four-point gap. And they were effectively able to keep Borris at that distance for the remainder of thematch.
Borris-Ileigh kept going and kept trying but they couldn’t come up with enough scores. In that keyten-minute spell before half-time, Conor Kenny had a couple of wides. JD Devaney’s shot for a goal flashed wide. A goal at that stage would have been massive, as much psychologically as on the scoreboard, but Borris spent the rest of the match trying to catch up to a train that always seemed to be going away from them.
THE game did finish in a welter of excitement but the match never really took off. That wasn’t really surprising with how Borris-Ileigh had been setting up all season, and considering that they needed to try and hang in for as long as they could, before going for broke at the end when they had no other choice.
Kilkenny teams have class but they are the absolute best at the basics too.
The comparative warm-ups were interesting and informative. While Borris went through an intricate and sassy routine, Ballyhale’s warm-up was largely governed by four players spread across the field and hitting balls up in the air to contest as the sliotar dropped. When it really mattered, Ballyhale won most of those aerial duels, and physical contests.
They adjusted well too to the tactical battle.
Darren Mullen was brilliant as the spare man. He hoovered up the world of ball but Mullen used it smartly too. On a couple of occasions in the second half, Mullen arrowed ball to Evan Shefflin, who got a couple of brilliant points from distance.
Borris-Ileigh have had an amazing season, and an incredible few months, but it was always going to be difficult to rely on momentum and hot form to sustain them on such a big day out against a Ballyhale side which treat Croke Park like their playground.
Kilkenny teams just know how to get it done and that was fully evident on Saturday evening when Tullaroan edged out Fr O’Neill’s in a classic. It was an excellent match but the endgame produced hurling drama from the Gods.
I’ve often watched the ‘Fight of the Century’, the epic battle between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier. I was reminded of it again on Saturday evening when Tullaroan and Fr O’Neill’s just went toe-to-toe and kept swinging until O’Neill’s finally hit the canvas on the last bell.
Kilkenny teams will win whatever way they can, whatever way they have to. In the curtain-raiser on Saturday, Russell Rovers gave it everything but it was obvious from the first quarter that Conahy Shamrocks were always that bit better in the All-Ireland Junior final.
At the end of 2017, a lot of commentators said Kilkenny were facing a few difficult years. That summer saw their earliest exit from the championship in years but there’s no end to a Kilkenny man. They won the 2018 National League. They reached last year’s All-Ireland final.
That game might still have left some question marks around Kilkenny but St Kieran’s have continued to gobble up All-Ireland Colleges titles. And their clubs keep winning All-Irelands. Especially Ballyhale.
The eternal icons.