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'A chance in a lifetime' - can Clare's Ballyea push on to All-Ireland club hurling glory?

The Clare champions are newly-crowned Munster champions and will face Galway’s St Thomas’s in February’s All-Ireland semi-final.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

AND THEN THERE were five. You can now count on one hand the number of teams remaining in the race for AIB All-Ireland senior club hurling glory.

Ballyea are newly-crowned Munster champions, Slaughtneil will fly the flag for Derry and Ulster, while St Thomas’s have emerged from the Galway minefield to book their place in the All-Ireland semi-finals.

There’s still some business to be attended to in Leinster, where Cuala and O’Loughlin Gaels will battle it out for Eastern honours, and yet Cuala head the betting alongside St Thomas’s to be crowned All-Ireland champions on St Patrick’s Day.

If you fancy Ballyea to build on their Clare and Munster successes, you can get them at 11-4, the same price as Kilkenny’s O’Loughlin Gaels, with Slaughtneil the 20-1 outsiders.

Tony Kelly is Ballyea’s talisman and he’s described the opportunity to push on as “a chance in a lifetime.”

Captain Stan Lineen, meanwhile, has freely admitted that he would have taken a one-point win against Glen Rovers in yesterday’s Munster final.

Ultimately, Ballyea won pulling up, with eight points to spare at the final whistle.

“We would have taken a point win. We knew we had to go at them early on, a club with a great tradition, you have to try and get on top of them early on.

Stan Lineen lifts the trophy Stan Lineen lifts the Munster trophy. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We knew coming in at half time that they would be a kick in them, and there was with those two goals. Tony Kelly said at half-time ‘we have to keep the scoreboard ticking over’. We kept picking our points.”

Even when Ballyea were rocked by two Conor Dorris goals for Glen Rovers after half-time, they never panicked.

There was serious composure in their ranks as they simply regrouped, kept that scoreboard ticking over and regained the initiative.

Ballyea have been in worse situations this year, of course, most notably when they needed Gary Brennan’s goal to take a semi-final epic against star-studded Thurles Sarsfields to extra-time. 

And in August, Ballyea were staring down the barrel of a gun ahead of a must-win clash with Newmarket-on-Fergus.

Tony Kelly celebrates Tony Kelly: 'This is a chance in a lifetime.' Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A 0-12 to 0-7 victory saw Ballyea through to the last 12 of the county championship and defeat for Newmarket-on-Fergus plunged them into a relegation battle, where they were ultimately lucky to survive the drop. 

“That has been our motto all year, play every game as a final,” says manager Robbie Hogan.

“There was a stage in the year where we were in a relegation scrap if we lost a game and we just said every game was a county final and lo and behold we’re after winning a Munster final.

We lost the first round of the championship and we had to play Newmarket-on-Fergus and if you lost that you were in a relegation scrap. There were some serious teams in it, that day turned the tide for us. There’s great togetherness about the boys. We’ve a jersey with a ‘t’ on the front of it and that ‘t’ is for ‘trust’. The boys trust each other, they’re super lads.”

That refusal to panic and a willingness to dig in for each other have been central tenets in Ballyea’s development.

Lineen agreed: “We have never panicked all year – in the county final and against Thurles, we kept the heads.

“We knew we had the players to drag a game back when it was going against us. Work hard and the results will come. We keep plugging away, nice and settled, keep working.

“The thing we noticed (against Thurles) was the support we were getting around Clare was incredible. When we came back against the Thurles the stands were moving with support. We’re not just representing Ballyea, we’re representing Clare. The support today (Glen Rovers) and against Thurles was like a 16th player.”

Ballyea’s star man Tony Kelly admitted that starting out this year, winning a county title was a ‘dream’ scenario.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But now they’re here, potentially just two hours away from the ultimate prize.

Kelly said: “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. We always believe in ourselves, there’s savage trust from player to player. We’d die for each other.

As for an All-Ireland semi-final against St Thomas’s, that can wait for now.

Kelly smiled: “Haven’t thought about that, we’ll celebrate this first.”

But, and as Kelly acknowledged with a grin, there is something more to aim for.

“This is a chance in a lifetime.”

A chance they know may never come their way again. Carpe Diem.

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