Ballyea (Clare) 1-21 Glen Rovers (Cork) 2-10
The new trumped the old in Semple Stadium when before 4,583 spectators, first-time Clare champions Ballyea added the AIB Munster club hurling title to their maiden haul. The freezing winter sun illuminated a fine display by the winners, which proved comprehensively too much for Glen Rovers, back at this level for the first time in 40 years.
The Cork team threatened a revival after half-time when the super-animated Conor Dorris scored 2-1 in five minutes, finishing attacks that looked to have broken down, and whittling the deficit back to one score, three points. Not even this impressive response could undermine the winners’ composure and they carefully re-established control on the field and then on the scoreboard.
Glen Rovers tried everything to get back into contention but no matter how they shuffled the deck – full back Stephen McDonnell switched to centrefield at one stage – they continued to draw losing hands.
Tony Kelly’s name has dominated all talk of Ballyea this campaign and if another five-star display did nothing to quieten such conversations, the new provincial champions are not a one-man band.
For most of the match their movement and pace proved too hot for the Cork city club to handle but in defence they were focused and relentless, making every attacking possession hard earned.
Kelly was at the heart of things, operating from centrefield to give him the widest sphere of influence: his touch in tight corners giving him almost effortless control and his flying athleticism taking him clear of markers.
His intelligence in possession is as great an asset and whether he chose to strike for scores – five points from play, three following hard on concessions at the other end – or let the ball go – one excellent delivery from distance dropped on top of Damien Burke and then tall full forward nearly flicked it into the net.
There were plenty to share the burden, though. Niall Deasy had four from play to go with a couple of frees and outstanding wing back Gearóid O'Connell's perpetual motion brought him amongst other places within range of three immaculately delivered long-distance points.
Pearse Lillis after a couple of poor shot selections in the early stages – but for balance who also tracked back like an express train just before half-time to break up an attack – sprang into life with a neat turn and devastating finish in the 13th minute for the score that put the first wedge between the teams on the scoreboard.
Adding to the Glen's problems was that they started sluggishly and by half-time trailed by nine, 0-4 to 1-10. Dorris's first goal was from following up a 65 that Patrick Horgan had seen come back off a post. Even after his second goal had reduced the margin to the minimum they couldn't maintain momentum.
Ballyea kept the scoreboard moving: 11 points in the second half , delivered by six different players.
Glen Rovers manager Richie Kelleher accepted that their first-half tally had left them too far adrift.
“We only scored four points, so probably. We gave away a soft goal as well; one of our lads got caught on the wrong side. They were in and they stuck it. We missed a couple of frees. Being honest, I thought a couple of our bigger guys didn’t turn up today. Some days they deliver for us, some days they don’t. We are not going to knock them. That is just the way it is.”
He also paid tribute to the winners’ defence.
“We got it back to three points, we did that two or three times. But we couldn’t get any closer. That is the sign of a good team. They were tougher than us; they were better hurlers than us. We can have no complaints.
“They were really strong in the tackle. When we go back to Cork, we are strong in the tackle. Today they were stronger than us. Maybe that just shows you the standard of inter-county hurling and where Cork is at the moment. We need to get that bit of steel into us. Cork don’t seem to have that at the moment. That’s everybody’s challenge.”
His captain Graham Callanan, who had competed hard in an out-gunned defence, acknowledged the at times unanswerable conundrum of their main tormentor.
"I think we all know how good Tony Kelly is. We see him with the county all the time and he's an incredible athlete and we didn't have the legs to stay with him all the time."
Ballyea captain Stan Lineen was quick though to emphasise the collective strength. A lot of people would say we’re a one man team but it’s a real team effort with everyone working hard. We’ve been doing that all year. When we started in January, the county championship was the dream. Words can’t describe our year – it’s what you dream of when you pick up a hurl.”
Finally, winning manager Robbie Hogan referenced his team's impressive discipline in keeping the focus on bigger things after winning a first county title and announced the start of the celebrations.
“When the bus gets back to Ballyea tonight it’ll be officially Christmas there so we’ll take it and we’ll run with it!”
Ballyea: K Sheehan; B Carrig, J Browne, J Neylon; G O'Connell (0-3), P Flanagan, J Murphy; T Kelly (0-5), S Lineen (capt.); N Deasy (0-7, three frees), PJ Connolly (0-2), C Doonan; P Lillis (1-1), G Brennan (0-1), D Burke (0-2). Subs: P O'Connell for Connolly (62 mins).
Glen Rovers: C Hickey; C Healy, S McDonnell, G Moylan; D Dooling, B Moylan, G Callanan (capt.); D Cronin, D Noonan; D Brosnan, P Horgan (0-5, four frees, one 65), D Cunningam (0-1); C Dorris (2-1), C O'Brien (0-1), D Busteed. Subs: B Murphy for Moylan (39 mins), M Dooley (0-2) for Busteed (39 mins), G Kennefick for O'Brien (45 mins)
Referee: J Murphy (Limerick)
* Ballyea will play Galway champions St Thomas’s in next February’s All-Ireland semi-final.