Ballyea: the hurling village with no pub take on suburban giants Cuala
Tony Kelly’s outfit are riding a wave of momentum ahead of All-Ireland club final
Ballyea’s Tony Kelly gets away from David Noonan of Glen Rovers during the Munster hurling club final in Thurles. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
They both consider themselves village clubs only that’s probably where the comparison begins and ends: Ballyea against Cuala in Friday’s All-Ireland club hurling final is more akin to rural locals versus suburban giants.
“We don’t even have a pub,” says Ballyea’s Tony Kelly. Not many villages in Ireland consider themselves to be anywhere without a pub, although in hurling terms, the Clare champions certainly haven’t come out of nowhere.
Cuala could more strictly be considered a town club, given Dalkey village has a town hall. But village or town, the areas does boast five thriving pubs – Finnegan’s, The Kings Inn, The Queens, The Club and The Magpie – with a sixth, McDonagh’s, currently being renovated.
Their so-called catchment areas paint a vivid contrast too: while Cuala has around 2,000 members, drawing from the densely populated areas of south Dublin including Dalkey, Dun Laoghaire, Loughlinstown, Shankill, Cabinteely and Ballybrack, the area around Ballyea has a population of around 600.
“Or 700 maybe,” adds Kelly, as if to lessen the comparison. “And it’s just a hurling area. We play with a neighbouring football club [Clondegad], and the pub is in the football area. But we have a shop, a church and we’ve a school.
“If we brought the entire parish with us, we still wouldn’t have as many as Cuala would, but we’d be supported well, and even from outside our own club, there’s a lot from Clare travelling.”
Not that any of this counts for much come throw-in time in Croke Park on Friday (3.0, TG4). Both clubs are there entirely on merit and Kelly, one of the stars of Clare’s 2013 All-Ireland success – and that season’s hurler of the year – offers plenty of reminders of just how forceful Ballyea have become in recent years.
“I suppose we are maturing as a team. We’d have been always seen as a dangerous team in Clare. That if you drew us, we could beat you. We’d never have been seen as a team that, from the off, ‘they’ll get to a semi-final’ or ‘they’ll get to a final’. But we’ve always been seen as a team that could catch you in a first round.
“And I think we’ve been unbeaten in two years in 60 minutes hurling. We’ve been beaten in extra time in last year’s  Clare championship and we were beaten in extra time in this year’s championship  in the first round.
“We haven’t been beaten in 60 minutes for two years so there is a togetherness there, a never-say-die attitude with us, but we’ve been relatively young as well.
“When I first came on it we were in relegation trouble for two or three years. Then we kind of came with a crop of players, we’re all now maybe 22,23.
“I think the oldest on the team is Brian Carrig, he’s 29. I think Gary Brennan is the oldest after that and I think we have 12 players from 24 down. So we have been pretty young and we’ve only come on and maybe matured and not been as up and down as much. I think that and a bit of luck and a bit of momentum.”
Luck and momentum possibly came into play in their last two games: Ballyea looked buried in their Munster final against Glen Rovers, only to somehow pull through, then they very nearly surrendered an early advantage in their All-Ireland semi-final against Galway champions St Thomas’.
“I sat down last Saturday and watched the Thurles [Munster final] game again, one of the lads had it recorded in his house, and I don’t know how we won that game to be honest with you. Not a clue how we won that game. It’s kind of rolled on from that. I think it spiralled on from there.
“Then we experienced it against St Thomas’ but on the opposite side of it. It’s a very, very, very difficult thing to stop. We weren’t maybe shrewd enough to kill time. Go down with an injury or break up their momentum a small bit. We maybe got one or two chances to get a score and kill their momentum and we didn’t take them, and I do think if it ran on another four or five minutes we could have been in trouble, big trouble.
“I think we were naïve, definitely. I think, even ourselves, we sat back, we went 10 points up and took the foot off the pedal.
“Excitement is the big thing now within the panel, and around the parish, because we definitely didn’t expect to be here, we didn’t expect to win the county championship, let alone win a Munster, and get to Croke Park with Ballyea.”
One interesting note to Friday’s game is the potential meeting of the Keane brothers: Niall transferred from Ballyea to Cuala last year, while bother Aonghus still plays with the Clare club, and while neither featured in the semi-final, both are expected to be part of the teams’ 24-man panels.
“He [Niall] played for Ballyea for maybe 10 years at senior level and never got to a county final even. He’s working up in Dublin I think four years so he just transferred. If he knew then what he knows now he night have held off for another couple of years but, let alone get to Croke Park, we thought we wouldn’t be playing in Cusack Park. That’s the kind of dilemma he was in.”