Famed Bennettsbridge aiming to be top Cats once again
Club’s revival culminates in a return to the Kilkenny senior final for the first time since 1974
Bennettsbridge players celebrate their victory over Abbeyknockmoy in the All -Ireland intermediate club final at Croke Park in 2016. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Time spins in ruthless loops and it doesn’t take much for the old certainties to get lost in the cyclone.
When Bennettsbridge lost the 1974 county final to The Fenians, there would have been no particular cause for panic in the small village that straddles the Nore a few miles south of Kilkenny city. Win some, lose some – the important thing was to be in some.
And by that measure, there wasn’t a club in Kilkenny at that time who had more cause to feel comfortable on the big stage than Bennettsbridge. In fact, there were very few clubs in the country as a whole who could match them for consistently making – and winning – county finals. If you hurled at all in Bennettsbridge through the 1950s and ’60s, chances are you had a clatter of county medals to your name.
The 1974 decider was their 16th time playing in the Kilkenny final in 25 seasons, 11 of which they came out of as champions.
For comparison, Glen Rovers had been in 13 Cork finals across that period, winning 10. Thurles Sarsfields had been in 15 Tipp deciders, winning 12. The gods were their only peers.
Imagine you’re sitting in Bennettsbridge that night in 1974, stewing on the 0-10 to 0-6 defeat earlier that day. No final defeat tastes pleasant but regardless of how bitter it felt on the tongue, there can have been nobody that night who in their darkest imagination saw the empty generations that lay ahead.
After 16 finals in a quarter of a century, Bennettsbridge have had to wait 44 years for their next final appearance. It would have been unthinkable.
Yet here they are, suiting up to take a crack at Ballyhale tomorrow, the village alight with the thoughts of it.
Club chairman Alan Flynn is a blow-in, born and raised in Dublin, pulled to Bennettsbridge by marriage just around a decade ago. He wasn’t there for all of the 44 years but he can tell how it feels to be back, just by looking around him.
“For the older generation, the teams from ’71 and ’74, it’s great to be back in it,” says Flynn.
“To see it coming back again, there’s a pep in the step for everyone. It’s great for all the older lads in the village. They saw a lot of hard times and now the good times are here for them. It’s a fierce competitive county, whether you’re junior B, junior C, whatever it is. Everybody can hurl and everybody does hurl.
“It’s hard to win anything down here, whatever the age group or tier. The trick is you have to keep the young lads coming and coming through. You have to keep them hurling all the time. If you can do that, it should come through eventually. Get a few underage teams sticking together and coming up together and the bad times won’t last forever.”
They’ve lasted long enough – and not for the first time. If and when they next add to their haul of county titles, Bennettsbridge will colonise for themselves the top end of an odd-looking table.
Currently, they own the record for the longest gap between Kilkenny titles, the 62 years covering the stretch between their first one in 1890 and their second in 1952. They are, of course, underdogs against the princes of Ballyhale tomorrow but if they find a way to be the ones still standing at the end, they will then occupy second place as well, making it 47 years between their 12th and 13th.
That said, the more recent history of Bennettsbridge has hinted at this famine coming to an end sooner rather than later.
Though they were a junior team as recently as 2014, they have been coming with a wet sail for most of this decade. They are built on the foundation stone of the 2011 county minor-winning team and endured back-to-back defeats in junior finals in 2012 and 2013 before eventually making the jump to intermediate.
Once they got there, they didn’t hang around.
Fresh from parlaying their county junior title into Leinster and All-Ireland success, they went on to repeat the dose at the higher level. They won the Kilkenny Intermediate Championship at the first attempt in 2015 and kept on trucking through Leinster and up to Croke Park the following February. All in all, they went two full years undefeated, only eventually tripping up in their second game as a senior team in April 2016.
“After we lost back-to-back county finals in 2012 and 2013, it was always going to be obvious that 2014 was going to be a linchpin year,” says Flynn.
“You can keep going or you can give up. We won every match that year, beating Mooncoin in the junior final. Then we went on to win Leinster and the All-Ireland, which was a huge day in Croke Park in February 2015.
“Then we were unbeaten in league and championship in intermediate the following year. Ask any of them at senior level, the likes of Dicksboro or the Village lads or whoever, they’ll all tell you that the level of those intermediate teams is very hard to play against. We were delighted to get through it and get out of it in one season. We didn’t really have to serve an apprenticeship at all.
“We won the intermediate All-Ireland and then we played in the senior championship in Kilkenny. We actually drew our first match against James Stephens so that meant we kept our unbeaten run going. That was our 32nd game unbeaten. We were eventually beaten by St Martin’s.”
The club had never died nor even come close to it but plenty of years had come and gone where nothing happened. Soccer was big for a while and in a village of around 600 people, every bit of give is taken. There would always be hurlers about the place but the key was always going to be finding a cluster of them to come along at the same time. When they did, they leapt up on a wave that’s still breaking.
The two-year unbeaten run was the time of their lives. One Saturday in October 2015, they beat Ballyragget in the Kilkenny intermediate final replay but had to put the celebrations on ice for 24 hours because they had the first round of Leinster on the Sunday. Handily for all concerned, the Monday was a bank holiday.
“That was a huge weekend for the club,” says Flynn.
“We hosted Coill Dubh of Kildare on the Sunday and won thankfully. We had that match in Bennettsbridge on the Sunday so that was a unique occasion. We had to hold off on the celebrations until we got over that but we enjoyed the Sunday night alright.”
Along the way, they shaped and made hurlers as they went.
Back in the 1990s Liam Simpson was their standard-bearer on the Kilkenny panel, only finding his way in on the back of a junior All-Ireland title for the county. These days, Bennettsbridge have five players in and around Brian Cody’s panel, the likes of Liam Blanchfield, Rob Lennon and Sean Morrissey all having had their days.
Ballyhale have done it all and seen it all and everyone presumes that ought to be enough. But nobody needs to tell Bennettsbridge that these days don’t come around often. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if they react accordingly.