*Tony Kelly gets away from Conor McGrath in their Clare SHC semi-final meeting. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill
A MOUTH-WATERING Clare SHC final is on the cards this weekend with some of the top hurlers in the country on show for either side, Tony Kelly will rightfully take his place amongst them.
“From talking to people, I think everyone is just really looking forward to the game. I suppose the two teams tend to just go at it and it’s great in a sense for any neutral going to the game that it’s probably a very hard game to call.
“I mean you wouldn’t be surprised if either team won it or even if there was a draw so that’s always a bonus going into a county final. Also for any neutrals, it’s two teams that haven’t really met before in a knock-out game so it’s something new to look forward to and I’m sure both teams will leave everything out there to try and win Sunday’s final.”
That wasn’t a county final publicity press release on behalf of Clare GAA or a ticket sales pitch from Clare’s new Commercial Manager but actually Ballyea talisman Tony Kelly giving his honest assessment of a historic first final between his defending champions and their ravenous neighbours Éire Óg who have been waiting a whopping 32 years to lift the Canon Hamilton trophy once more.
Back-to-back All-Star Kelly, who is in line for a fourth national nod this time next week, only needs to look at their opponents’ interminable 22 year gap between senior final appearances alone to re-emphasise that it’s pivotal for Ballyea’s golden generation to win as much as they can while on top.
“Going back seven years ago when we won the first, we were trying to capitalise upon that breakthrough and hopefully make the most of being on top. The group that was there for the first one in 2016 is still by and large the same lads that are there now with the addition of younger players that have come through the ranks in the last few years so we know that this won’t last forever and therefore it’s about trying to win as much as we can while we’re near the top of the ladder.
“You don’t know how long this will last as there is going to be a barren spell where we’re going to go from getting to a county final back into the middle of the pack or even down fighting to stay senior.
“So it’s all cyclical and we’re just fortunate enough that we’re in a prime cycle for the club at the minute but we’re under no illusion that the wheel will turn at some stage. We’re just try to make the most of it and capitalise on it while we can”.
A fourth title since 2016 would not only equal Sixmilebridge’s haul in the past eight seasons but also make Ballyea only the fourth team over the past 30 years to have garnered successive championship crowns.
“It’s not something we talk about ever, we have never set out at the start of the year talking about winning a championship or anything like that and I’m sure most clubs are the same. It’s really only when you get down to the latter stages that you begin to say to yourself that there’s a chance here now and you try and ensure that everyone gives hell for leather and see where it takes us. And luckily enough for us this year, that got us back into a county final in the hope of winning it again. When you get there, obviously anything can happen but it’s about taking that opportunity with both hands as there’s no guarantee that you will ever get back there again”.
Ballyea’s enviable record of three wins from as many final appearances makes them slight favourites but having come from behind in every decider they’ve played, Kelly isn’t about to guarantee that their supporters will have any nails left to bite coming down the final straight on Sunday.
“Going out in a final and winning by nine or ten points would be great but that has never been the case for us. Take last year for example, all through the championship, every game that we played we won by a point bar one match.
“Even against Cratloe the last day, I suppose we were in control for large parts and then Cratloe came at us and only for Barry Coote to make a great save with two minutes to go, it would have been back to a point and Cratloe probably would have gotten an opportunity to level it. So there’s never really a relaxing period and especially in a semi-final or final, it’s always going to be tight and tense”.
Those two words have been on everyone’s lips over the past ten days when referring to this intriguing match-up as 2013 National Hurling and Young Hurler of the Year Kelly is the first to admit that his side will have to play to their optimum to prevail.
“If you look at Éire Óg and Ballyea, they’re similar in terms of their make-up and the number of county hurlers and footballers they have. Definitely trying to plot Éire Óg’s downfall will be tough but with the quality that they have, we need to keep their forwards in check.
“Even to watch them from a distance over the last few years, they’ve been really impressive and are deservedly in the final this year. They’ve played some really good hurling when you consider the calibre of teams they’ve met as well so they’ve come through a tough group and had an even tougher semi-final against the ‘Bridge and have momentum behind them.
“On paper it looks like Sunday will serve up a good final but in saying that it won’t bother either of us if it’s a dour affair so long as you’re on the right side of it. Finals are for winning after all and no-one ever remembers the beautiful hurling or brilliant gameplan that you planned to play or execute as long as you win.”
Press release ends!