Andy Moloney has enjoyed hurling success with both Ballygunner and Ballyhale. INPHO
Inside track

The Munster winning Ballygunner hurler and All-Ireland winning Ballyhale boss

Andy Moloney has close links to both of today’s All-Ireland club semi-finalists in Semple Stadium.

THERE IS A comfort at least for Andy Moloney that this fixture has cropped up now.

If it had materialised a couple of seasons ago, it could have been a trickier scenario to wrap his head around.

Semple Stadium draws the Kilkenny and Waterford kingpins together today, the serious business resuming in the club hurling arena after the annual period of winter hibernation.

A battle between Ballyhale, who Moloney managed to All-Ireland glory in 2015, and Ballygunner, who Moloney was part of the playing ranks when they lifted their inaugural Munster crown in 2001 and was immersed in the celebrations with his club-mates when they ended a long wait for that second title last November.

There will be enough on the line this evening in the pursuit of a prized spot in the St Patrick’s Day showpiece without being tangled up in conflicted emotions.

“I’m lucky I’m gone out of Ballyhale or else I’d be coming up against my own crowd,” laughs Moloney.

He came in from the outside to Ballyhale in early 2014 and settled in quickly. His friendship with the club’s icon Henry Shefflin stemmed from their college days in WIT, they won Fitzgibbon Cup titles and kept in contact as their county careers diverged on different paths.

Moloney worked in tandem with Colm Bonnar and their first season featured a series of triumphs, culminating in an All-Ireland win on the back of a supremely dominant display over Limerick’s Kilmallock as they posted 1-18 and had 12 points to spare.

“I enjoyed all the lads. All they wanted to do was go out and hurl. There was no one upmanship at all. When you think of all the names that were in that dressing-room at that time – Henry, the two Fennelly’s, TJ, Cha Fitzpatrick. They were household names but then you’d Joey Holden, Aidan Cummins and Eoin Reid who had all won All-Ireland championships as well with Kilkenny.”

“I knew a lot of them before I went up there because I would have been friends with Henry. I would have been going to their matches, having a few drinks with them after their matches. We kind of knew what we were letting ourselves in for, both myself and Colm Bonnar because a lot of them went to college in WIT.”

Andy Moloney Andy Moloney speaking with TJ Reid during the 2014 Leinster club hurling final. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

For a superpower of the club hurling game, Moloney was struck from the off by the modest surroundings that they operated from in their base in south Kilkenny, just off the M9 motorway.

“Jaysus they’re a great little club for the size of the parish. If you’re a bit old school, you’d consider they were founded I think in 1972 and in that space of time they won six All-Ireland club championships out of a small little field at the back of the church in Knocktopher.

“They were showing me all this when I was up there. I was saying, ‘My God almighty’. When you think of all the clubs around the country at the moment, they nearly have to have state of the art facilities to try and I suppose convince themselves that’s the way forward.

“Now it’s nice to have all those facilities but think they (Ballyhale) won all that with just the bare essentials, the dressing-rooms and a GAA field. They’re an unbelievable club. They’re genuine hurling people that’s what they are.”

17 March 2015 proved to be a high-water mark that was difficult to replicate. They got back to the county final in Kilkenny in 2016 and a semi-final in 2017 under Moloney’s watch but success eluded them with a string of injuries not hampering their cause.

Himself and Bonnar moved on after four enjoyable campaigns with Ballyhale turning to an illustrious name to take the managerial reins at the outset of 2018.

“Ah the big fella yeah,” laughs Moloney when he considers the 10-time All-Ireland winner who succeeded him in his first move into management.

Henry Shefflin Henry Shefflin guided Ballyhale to Leinster glory last December. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“Sure look Henry’s a very focused individual at the best of times with work and with the GAA side of things. I was actually surprised he took it on but what team wouldn’t want Henry Shefflin over their team?

“He’s very good with people first of all. That’s his own make up. I suppose what I like about Henry is that’s very similar in a way to (Brian) Cody, just from listening to him to talk since he took it on, he’s certain ways that he thinks hurling should be played and he’s true to that.

“He’s not averse to adapting to the situation when it arises but I think he’s more of the opinion that we try and impose our game on them.”

He’s been impressed with Shefflin putting his stamp on a Ballyhale team that has lost half of a starting fifteen since reaching the national summit in 2015 and ushered in a series of promising youngsters to make their mark.

But there has been another club hurling journey to keep track of recently.

Moloney and his Ballygunner team-mates toasted that 2001 Munster club win, a breakthrough after seasons of frustration. They tried to get back there, coming closest in 2005 and 2009 when they were bettered by a Newtownshandrum team in the midst of a golden run.

Andy Moloney DIGITAL Andy Moloney in action against Blackrock in the 2001 Munster club hurling final. INPHO INPHO

2011 saw his playing days halt after a Munster semi-final loss to Na Piarsaigh, a side starting out who became regular foes of Ballygunner. When Moloney was signing off on his playing career, he was lining out with an emerging crop.

“I played with Stephen O’Keeffe, Barry Coughlan, Wayne Hutchinson, Philip (Mahony), Harley (Barnes), Shane O’Sullivan, Pauric Mahony, with all of them. I would have played with the lads up until 2011.

“Generally speaking the finals that Ballygunner have lost, the team that beat them went on to win the All-Ireland or contest it. It’s no shame in itself even though the stats don’t look good. I think the current crop of players have only ever been a small little bit away from going all the way and now they’re in a position where they can.”

The wildness and uncontrolled nature of Ballygunner’s celebrations in Thurles as the sun set on the 2018 campaign was rooted in the suffering they had endured. Emerging from Waterford had not been a problem, they sealed five-in-a-row last October.

But the trick has been to parlay those local triumphs into successes further afield. Munster proved a minefield to conquer with an array of high quality teams in contention.

“They’d been close at times and then at other times it looked like it was never going to happen. But I remember Billy O’Keeffe saying to me, I met him after the Munster final, they were devastated after losing to Na Piarsaigh in 2017. He’d said it would come, they just needed to be patient and it all was going to happen. I said it him on the field after the final this year, that he was dead right.

“Some of these things are written in the stars. When your day is in, it’s in. It was like that with Philip Mahony’s goal against Ballyea that brought it to extra-time and they won. I remember when we won it back in 2001, we were very fortunate to beat Lismore in the county final. We played a first round match against Stradbally and we were very lucky to get over that so. When it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

These days Moloney is involved in the juvenile section in Ballygunner, his son plays for the U10s and he witnesses the impact the senior heroes having.

“When we brought the cup back to Ballygunner school in 2001, Philip Mahony and Pauric I remember going into his class. They were only in fifth class and sixth class I’d say.

“They were the stars of the future then coming up. Their father actually played on the same team as us, Mick Mahony, and he’d have done a lot of work with that group underage. About seven of the team that Mick would have trained at underage level. He got a lot out of one team to be fair to him.

“Now my young fella and the bunch that’s coming along after them, who are only in second or third class at the moment in school are looking up to the current crop. It’s great. It doesn’t happen too often down here in Waterford. De La Salle have had a very good innings, Ballygunner had a run at it and so did Mount Sion.”

Ballygunner celebrate winning Ballygunner players celebrating their Munster final victory last year. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

The previous assault at an All-Ireland series was thwarted by Galway’s Clarinbridge in a semi-final in 2002.

“My abiding memory is that we didn’t train properly over the Christmas time. That would be the regret that I’d have that we kind of reached the Holy Grail on Munster final day. I know you’d be talking about the emotion after this year’s final, it was probably three times before that with us.

“It was like an explosion of emotion on the day but I think the celebrations after probably continued a little bit too long. I think in fairness to this bunch they’re crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. They’ve done everything they can over the Christmas period and the last couple of weeks to make sure they’re fully prepared for this game.”

So Moloney will head to Semple Stadium today, take his seat for an eagerly-awaited showdown between two clubs who he has penned significant hurling chapters with.

But divided loyalties come throw-in? His answer to that is unequivocal.

“I’ve the world of admiration for the boys in Ballyhale because for the years we were there, they gave us everything they could.

“We had a hand in some of them coming through there the last couple of years, you’d be proud of the way they’re playing.

“But I will definitely be in the black and red corner for this one. There’s great excitement about it down here.”

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