Ballyhale Shamrocks 2-21 James Stephens 1-15
On a sharp, sunny afternoon in Nowlan Park, All-Ireland champions Ballyhale re-asserted their local dominion in the county final and without hitting anything like peak performance, gave notice that it won't be the only title they intend to retain in the months ahead.
It was an uncomplicated victory, fashioned much as they wished against a battling James Stephens. The challengers relatively lightweight attack struggled to get any great purchase against the champions, who could afford a day of epic profligacy with their shooting - most vividly apparent in TJ Reid’s seven wides, four from placed balls, half the team’s total.
There was a sombre context to the club's 17th county title, as both manager Henry Shefflin and captain Michael Fennelly, in his acceptance speech, paid tribute to Eugene Aylward, who would have been 23 next week but died in a road crash earlier this month. He was the second club player after Eoin Doyle to die on the roads in the last 18 months.
“Last year we were fortunate to win it in Eoin’s memory and as Michael said, this is in Eugene’s memory. Who knows what comes after this?,” said Shefflin.
“I’ll tell them in the dressing-room they’ll celebrate more after this than last year, because life is cruel, and there’s been a sadness and a darkness around our community in Ballyhale. They deserve a bit of lightness in their lives now and we’ll let them enjoy themselves and we’ll see then after that.”
For the second match in succession Ballyhale conceded an early goal when Tadhg O’Dwyer pounced on what would be a rare opening to fire the outsiders ahead within two minutes.
Colin Fennelly replied with a point almost immediately and it became a feature of the match, substantiating the view that Shamrocks were being strictly economical, that they would score within a minute of conceding. Ten times it happened, for a total of 2-8 and kept their opponents fairly subdued.
Their own opening goal came in the 11th minute after Colin Fennelly, playing a withdrawn role rather than conventional full forward, had placed Brian Cody - his brother Eoin had had a shot blocked on the line by Eoin Larkin five minutes previously - and his crisp finish for 1-13 to 1-1 effectively marked the end of the contest, as the Village trailed all the way to the final whistle.
When minded, the champions showed their credentials. A shot dropped short by Conor Browne was turned into a score by Adrian Mullen within two pucks. If shooting inaccuracy helped keep down the margin, some loose defending also contributed to a succession of frees, which allowed Eoin Guilfoyle to end the final as top scorer with eight.
Trailing 1-7 to 1-12 at the break, the challengers started the second half well with Gulifoyle and Browne on the mark but any hopes of a rally were flattened minutes later when Reid showed that even if his shooting instincts had gone awry, his ability to use the ball was unaffected as he picked out Eoin Cody with a lovely, precise pass and the margin had swollen to six, 2-12 to 1-9.
Full forward Niall Brassil briefly took over on the frees in the 50th minute with a clear intention of going for goal but the shot whistled over the bar.
Shefflin also acknowledged the wear and tear on the county players, who had been to the All-Ireland final with Kilkenny.
“The county lads have had an awful long year. They were back in training the Wednesday after the club All-Ireland. When they came back Adrian (Mullen) was down a bit, Colin (Fennelly) was down a bit, but they stepped up big time.
“Colin last week struggled a bit, but he didn’t train; he just relaxed in Dublin, and then he came down and gave a great performance. It’s trying to manage that but I’ve experienced that before myself so I had an idea what would be in their heads.”
When asked about the wayward shooting he was pragmatic.
“As long as Ballyhale Shamrocks won, that’s all that matters - of course on the sideline you’d be frustrated. There’s probably more in them, but their job was to come here today and achieve what we set out to achieve.”
Ballyhale Shamrocks: D Mason; D Corcoran, J Holden, D Mullen; E Shefflin (0-2), M Fennelly (capt), R Reid; R Corcoran (0-1), P Mullen (0-1); A Mullen (0-2), TJ Reid (0-6, 0-4 frees, 0-1 65), B Cody (1-1); E Cody (1-2), C Fennelly (0-3), E Reid (0-2). Subs: J Cuddihy (0-1) for P Mullen (33 mins), M Aylward for B Cody (55 mins), C Phelan for D Corcoran (58 mins), 18. G Butler for R Corcoran (60 mins), J Connolly for Mason (62 mins).
James Stephens: G Costigan; L Murphy, T Keogh, J Tyrrell; N Mullins, E Larkin, D Hennessy; S Donohoe (0-1), C Kenny (0-1); M Ruth, C Browne (capt; 0-1), L Scanlon; T O'Dwyer (1-1), N Brassil (0-3, 0-1 free), E Guilfoyle (0-8, all frees). Subs: J McGrath for Larkin (45 mins), D Walton for Hennessy (46 mins), L Hickey for Keogh (55 mins), M McWey for Murphy (58 mins), J Byrne for Guilfoyle (59 mins).
Referee: Owen Kenny (Tullogher-Rosbercon)