Family affair as Ballygunner become first Waterford club to win an All-Ireland

Burning obsession fulfilled for Philip Mahony as he and uncle O’Sullivan taste glory

When they previously faced Ballyhale, in the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final, Ballygunner's fate had been sealed when a goal attempt by Conor Power was cleared off the line by Richie Reid, who was helped by the sliotar getting stuck in the Thurles mud.

The Kilkenny men won comfortably enough in the end.

On Saturday, fate balanced the books. Seconds left and nothing would do but a goal, which replacement Harry Ruddle conjured in a sensational finish both to the corner of the net and to the match itself.

It was scarcely believable, especially for the masters of the endgame, Ballyhale but also for the winners, Ballygunner, the first Waterford club to win an All-Ireland title.


People in Waterford had said, they can’t wait to get to Croke Park. That surface will really suit them, as had the similar field in Páirc Uí Chaoimh when the club had convincingly won the Munster title in January.

Well, it took its time but they got there.

Philip Mahony, joint-captain with Barry Coughlan, sat in the interview room in Croke Park beside Darragh O'Sullivan, multi-tasking as his manager and uncle – to say nothing of collaborator in a Ballygunner minor team of a few years previously, which had produced several of Saturday's players, including Harry Ruddle.

“This was a burning obsession for so many years. I remember Darragh’s father, my grandfather, for years every single Paddy’s Day. It might be down in Blenheim in the home house and he’d say, ‘we’ll be there some day’ and he was instilling that into the likes of Pauric, me and Shane and the other lads in there.

“He passed away a few years ago and he’ll be looking down on us and my God! He’ll be smiling on us. I can’t believe it, lads, to be honest.”

The theme of the press conference was the importance of hard work and how this sort of achievement does not suddenly happen, but also of perseverance. The club’s difficulty in converting a trove of county titles into provincial success had long been a reproach.

Former player Darragh O'Sullivan had been talked into taking over from Fergal Hartley after the All-Ireland semi-final defeat of three years ago on what was only their second excursion beyond Munster where they have lost seven finals in 25 years – despite having won the last eight Waterford titles.

With no one else available, he took on the position and paid tribute to coach David Franks – "a phenomenal friend of mine and the club" – the former Offaly hurler and the one member of the outgoing management team who agreed to stay on.

“I remember meeting David Franks down at the club and I said, ‘David, I need you to stay with us. The rest of the lads have stepped away.’

“He said, ‘Darragh, when [at the time] I came to Ballygunner there weren’t too many people ringing me and asking me to get involved and the last thing I’m going to do is leave Ballygunner when I think they need me most’.

O'Sullivan also explained the mood at half-time when after plenty of possession and opportunity, they trailed by three points. Earlier in the week, another former manager Cork's Denis Walsh had sent a text to the team.

“He said ‘hang in there, stay in there’. That’s all you can do. We spoke at half-time about it’s so hard to get to an All-Ireland final and just don’t regret the 30 minutes.

“If we were beaten and emptied ourselves, fair enough we’d have our heads held high.”

If you were to identify why Ballygunner succeeded this year as opposed to 2019, the critical differences are an infusion of new young players, adding energy and pace to the team plus the will of Providence that saw Dessie Hutchinson turn his back on a professional soccer career.

"When you look at the young lads there like Ronan Power and Paddy Leavey and Kevin [Mahony] and Tadhg [Foley], they're 19 and 20 years of age. They stepped up and drove the team on when it was in the melting pot. They have huge futures ahead. It's not even the hurling side of things, it's how good the lads are, how grounded they are, and what Ballygunner and Waterford means to them."

And Dessie Hutchinson, the scorer of 1-3 and TG4 man of the match?

“Ah listen, Dessie came back and he’s been phenomenal. He came back in around three years ago when we played Ballyhale [he hadn’t started playing that day] but he’s a professional athlete playing hurling. He was groomed as a professional athlete – you look at his movement and skill. He came back into the group straight away.

“I remember meeting him near the office and he said ‘Darragh, I’m thinking of going in with the Waterford footballers’ and I said ‘I don’t mind if you go in with the footballers but I want you up in the field every night training – not the physical stuff, but you need the hurling, because that’s what you’re going to be missing.’

“I said I have no doubt that in six or eight months time, ‘you won’t be playing with the Waterford footballers. You’ll be playing with the hurlers and that’s how good you are.’ That’s what he did; he came training every night. That’s what Dessie is, he’s a phenomenal hurler but a phenomenal human being as well.”