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Clare football and hurling stars unite in pursuit of club history in Banner County

Ballyea could win a very first Clare senior hurling title today.

Clare senior hurling joint-captain Tony Kelly and football skipper Gary Brennan are Ballyea club-mates.
Clare senior hurling joint-captain Tony Kelly and football skipper Gary Brennan are Ballyea club-mates.

ON THE OUTSKIRTS of Ennis, a five-minute drive from the town heading West, lies the village of Ballyea.

Well-known faces such as 2013 Hurler of the Year Tony Kelly and former All-Star Tony Griffin come from here but it’s a club with a football twist.

Club chairman Paddy Moylan rattles through the team-sheet and the list contains some familiar names, Kelly and Gary Brennan chief among them.

In 2016, Kelly was joint-captain of Davy Fitzgerald’s Clare senior hurlers, while Brennan captained the footballers to an All-Ireland quarter-final appearance.

You can drive to neighbouring Clondegad in a matter of minutes from Ballyea.

Clondegad is football country but many of their players are also proficient with stick and small ball.

Brian Carraig’s corner back for Ballyea, James Murphy plays at wing-back and Eoin Donnellan’s at full-forward.

Tony Griffin Former Clare star Tony Griffin lined out in the 2003 county SHC final for Ballyea. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Then there’s Brennan, the All-Star football nominee who’s expected to line out at centre forward in the county SHC final against Clonlara.

A couple of years ago, the talk in Clare was that Fitzgerald had set his sights on Brennan for the hurlers, on the back of some barnstorming displays at full-forward for Ballyea.

So that’s four Clondegad men on the Ballyea hurling team, while Kilmihil, 20 minutes from Ballyea, are represented by Stan Lineen, Ballyea’s captain incidentally, and corner forward Pat Joe Connolly.

In the other corner, Cathal Doohan is a club footballer with Lissycasey and you have Pearse Lillis at wing-forward, a Clare senior footballer who lines out for Cooraclare at club level in the big ball code.

Goalkeeper Kevin Sheehan, corner back Joe Neylon, full-back Jack Browne, wing-back Gearóid ‘Gudgy’ O’Connell, centre back Paul Flanagan, flying midfielder Kelly and wing-forward Niall Deasy are Ballyea born and bred.

Pearse Lillis with Brian O'Beaglaoich Pearse Lillis shoots for goal in the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final defeat to Kerry. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Kelly, Browne, O’Connell and Flanagan have all worn the Clare senior shirt with distinction in recent times, and are All-Ireland U21 medallists.

But the reason why players from football clubs are lining out for Ballyea, a hurling club, is quite simple, as Moylan explains.

“Ballyea is a hurling club only, we don’t have football.

“Gary (Brennan) lives in Ballyea but he’s predominantly a footballer.

“We’re on the western periphery of hurling in Clare. To the west of us is football only, there are no hurling clubs.

Jack Browne Ballyea's Jack Browne in action for Clare. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“That’s why we would have some footballers coming into Ballyea. It’s either don’t play hurling or come to us.

“But these guys love their hurling, and have played hurling with Ballyea since they were kids. They would have started with the U8s and U10s.

“And so while Clondegad is right beside us, three or four minutes between us, rather than a dual club, you have two clubs (one hurling, one football).

“There have been attempts to start hurling clubs in West Clare but there’s isn’t enough of a demand.”

Ballyea have never won the Canon Hamilton Cup and today’s final marks their first time on the big stage since 2003, when Griffin was in his pomp.

“At that stage, we were senior B,” Moylan recalls.

“We got a good run in the senior B and that got us into the quarter-finals of the senior A. We got a run to the final, lost to Clarecastle, and lost the senior B final that year as well.

“In 2004, we won the senior B final and went senior A. We’ve been senior A, senior B ever since.”

In recent years, Ballyea have been knocking hard at the door, contesting county quarter-finals and a semi-final but struggling to make that final step.

Now they’re here, thanks a county quarter-final victory over Crusheen and a last four success against Feakle.

Pat Conlon celebrates with the Clonlara team Clonlara celebrate county SHC glory in 2008. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Clonlara are 8-15 favourites, flip the numbers and you can have a punt on Ballyea, and while Moylan acknowledges the scale of the task at hand, he’s quietly confident.

“Clonlara last won the Canon Hamilton in 2008 but they’d been knocking on the door before that, and were beaten finalists last year.

“Every line on their team has serious county players. We’re up against it but it’s good to be there and it’s still 15 on 15 come Sunday. We’ll do our best.

“The local school are really behind this, and the entire parish. The kids are really enjoying it – it’s an All-Ireland for the kids from the parish. They would know all the lads, which makes it that bit more special for them.”

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