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'A club like ours only gets this chance once in a lifetime' - Tony Kelly and Ballyea's journey

It’ll be a historic St Patrick’s Day for the Clare club.

WHEN TONY KELLY left Croke Park on 26 September 2013, he didn’t think he would be waiting three and a half years for the next time that he would grace the pitch.

If you’d told him that his next outing there would be in his club colours of Ballyea on Friday in a St Patrick’s Day hurling showpiece, he would have dismissed the prospect instantly.

Tony Kelly celebrates at the final whistle Tony Kelly celebrates their victory over St Thomas Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

It wasn’t an ambition because it was something he couldn’t countenance.

Before last October, Ballyea had appeared in one Clare senior hurling final in their history. That was back in 2003 and the fact that it was Clarecastle who administered a nine-point defeat that day, was a reminder of their historical struggle.

Before his son became a hurling superstar, Donal Kelly lined out at minor and U21 for Clare. At club level he toiled away in the junior grade for Ballyea but his proficiency dictated that he was snapped up by Clarecastle, the senior heavyweight force in the same parish.

“My father has two county championships with Clarecastle,” outlined Tony.

“That was the done thing. Ballyea would have been junior when my father was playing. If you were half decent at all, you’d go in the road to play senior.”

Tony Kelly celebrates with his father Donal Tony Kelly celebrates the Munster club final win with his father Donal. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

And yet here they are, one of the last two hurling teams standing in Ireland and four days away from colliding with Cuala for the biggest club prize in the sport.

They needed a replay before landing their maiden Clare title last October against Clonlara, gathered themselves after the frenzied celebrations to emerge the following Sunday to win a Munster thriller in Ennis against Thurles Sarsfields and kept on going.

The challenges of Cork’s Glen Rovers and Galway’s St Thomas have been negotiated, and now they find themselves in the scarcely believable scenario of preparing to hurl in Croke Park.

2017 AIB GAA Senior Club Championship Finals Media Day Ballyea's Tony Kelly and Cuala's Cian O'Callaghan before the AIB All-Ireland senior club hurling final Source: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

Kelly is unequivocal that this is not the beginning of a dynasty, rather a single privileged chance they have been handed.

“To get here with Ballyea is a bit mental. I think we’re all in acknowledgement that this is our only chance to play in Croke Park with Ballyea.

“We definitely won’t get back here again I don’t think anyway. A club like ours only gets this chance once in a lifetime.

“We could have lads going to America or Australia next year or the year after. At club level if you get one good lad injured, you’re not even coming out of Clare.”

Climbing to the summit in Clare was a difficult challenge, succeeding in an environment that has produced 13 different winners in the last 16 years.

Ballyea celebrating at the end of the game Ballyea players celebrating their Clare senior hurling final replay win Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

To achieve that, they needed a golden crop of players. Kelly spearheaded a bunch that shined from the very moment they started at underage level.

They were talented and successful and defined by an opponent that challenged them relentlessly in Sixmilebridge.

“We won an U12 A, U14 A, were beaten in an U16 A and minor A, then we won an U21 A,” outlined Kelly.

“I’d say that without Sixmilebridge in Clare, we wouldn’t be here. I remember training for U12, U14, we were going three or four nights a week, we were playing two challenge matches a weekend.

“You’d be going to Galway Sunday morning, playing a game the far side of Galway and on the way home, we’d play another one against Gort, all because they (Sixmilebridge) were doing the same thing.

“They were doing it at senior level as well and still are. Their underage is phenomenal. We met them in the all those underage finals but I’ve never met them at senior level.

“We won a Féile in 2007, ten years ago. From that we have Jack Browne, Gearoid O’Connell, Niall Deasy, Damien Burke, Eoghan Donnellan (and) Joe Neylon.

“We came with maybe two crops, the age group before had the likes of Paul Flanagan.”

They’ve retained that nucleus and prospered. At the tail end of last summer, they crucially got a run at preparing properly as well.

Both Clare senior teams were knocked out of championship and suddenly Ballyea’s numbers at training had swelled to 20-25 players on the pitch every night. That had a major knock-on effect.

Kelly’s wonderful form has been central to their success, hitting 0-20 in the last three games of the Clare championship, posting 1-15 in their big wins in Munster and chipping in with 0-3 to defeat St Thomas, including clipping over the late insurance point.

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He likes to deflect the spotlight elsewhere, glad that club stalwarts like Joe Neylon are getting recognition and that a forward like Niall Deasy is showing what he can do to get a call up by the Clare seniors.

And Kelly tips the hat towards the leader of the Clare footballers as well for his influence.

Gary Brennan celebrates Gary Brennan celebrates Ballyea's victory over Thurles Sarsfields Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“Gary’s from Ballyea but he’s predominantly football. You wouldn’t really see Gary until the football is over.

“But he’s a fresh leadership voice coming into it then. Everything he says is spot on. He’s a huge, huge leader for us.”

As a club they’re not blessed with top of the range facilities but they adapt and cope. Ballyea’s main pitch has no floodlights so over the winter they’ve trekked as far back west as Miltown or in on the motorway to Limerick.

They’ve found other clubs glad to accommodate them, recognising the great narrative that has been Ballyea’s story.

In turn Kelly and his teammates have been conscious of flying the Banner flag, adamant they would try to make a mark outside of Clare rather than have their appetites sated by a county title.

Friday is the last stop of the journey and for Kelly the prize is not just for those on the pitch.

“From a personal point of view, my father, put in so much work with us all the way up along, himself and Fergie O’Loughlin took us from U12 as far as U21.

“Then there’s lads that aren’t around to see it, like Liam Fitz, an older fella that died a few years ago from cancer. Gearoid O’Connell our centre-back, his father only died there a year or two ago.

“Lads like that would have never even thought of seeing Ballyea playing in Croke Park on an All-Ireland final day.

“Tony Griffin probably put us on the map, representing Clare, winning an All-Star, he kept us senior basically on his own for a good few years.

“We’re doing it for ourselves and for the older lads in the club really because I think they truly understand where Ballyea has come from.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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