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'We realise how lucky we are to be on this journey' - All-Ireland title bid and leaving Waterford

Stephen O’Keeffe is central to Ballygunner’s hopes of success on Saturday.

Stephen O'Keeffe will play in Saturday's AIB All-Ireland senior club hurling final.
Stephen O'Keeffe will play in Saturday's AIB All-Ireland senior club hurling final.
Image: Sportsfile

FAITH AND PERSISTENCE have not been commodities in short supply in Ballygunner.

They have built a hurling empire in Waterford over the last decade and since 2014 they have been unbeatable on the county senior hurling scene, completing eight-in-a-row last autumn.

From the outside, arriving at an All-Ireland final for the first time next Saturday feels like a logical conclusion but within the club this national prize has not always been a pursuit that has consumed them.

“I remember when we started out on our run in Waterford, the first goal was, without it being said or anything, to be one of the three-in-a-row teams in Ballygunner,” says goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe.

“There was a great team that won in the ’60s and another one in the ’90s, to be able to compare yourself to those would have been huge from a confidence side of things. I don’t think it was a case from the first championship win in Waterford that we were looking at an All-Ireland as the baseline to measure ourselves off.

“It was Munster we wanted to get over.”

The province has given them plenty to contend with. For all their local dominance, parlaying those wins in Waterford into successes in Munster was not straightforward. No club has lost more Munster hurling finals, their 2018 win felt like a seismic breakthrough for this group and last month’s victory over Kilmallock seemed important in reinforcing their credentials.

“We were trying to get over the hump in Munster for three or four years in a row,” recalls O’Keeffe.

“Coming up against Na Piarsaigh twice (in finals), one of the best club teams to have come out of Munster in the last 20, 30 years. coming up against Thurles Sars and losing by a point. Tough losses to take.

“It certainly wasn’t a case of we’re competing at a level where we’re better than other teams and we’re just leaving games behind us. There’s no real games that stick in the craw to that extent. Munster is a very, very hard province to get out of.

“We finally did (win) in 2018 and I think there’s players that have come on since then, that maybe don’t have the hang-ups of losing those games and that’s including even the loss to Borris-Ileigh in 2019.

“There’s players playing on this team now that they were there as supporters, as children. To be projecting that sense of we have win this time because we didn’t win last time, it doesn’t come into it because you’ve young players coming in fresh that don’t know any different. We’re in an All-Ireland final now and we’re looking forward to it.”

ballygunner-celebrate-with-the-trophy Ballygunner players celebrate their win over Kilmallock in the Munster final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Twice before the club had contested All-Ireland semi-finals and lost out in 2002 and 2019, before they ended that streak of reversals last month against Derry’s Slaughtneil. O’Keeffe can appreciate the wider significance of becoming only the third Waterford side to contest an All-Ireland hurling decider and the attempt to be the first Deise outfit to win it.

“Definitely we realise how lucky we are to be on this journey together. You want it to culminate in a win on Saturday obviously. But yeah I suppose sometimes it’s important to take a minute just to take stock of the journey you’ve been on.

“There’s a brilliant culture in Ballygunner. They’re hurling mad. Flags go up as soon as we get into a county final and they stay up for as long as we manage to stay in the competition. I think everyone is just excited, looking forward to it. It’s an important day for the club.

“But in terms from a playing point of view, we’ve done pretty well to keep the circle quite tight. A lot of us are very close friends at the moment so it’s quite easy to stay insulated from that angle.”

O’Keeffe has become more central to their efforts since his decision to pull the plug on his Waterford career. In late December 2020 he announced he was stepping away from the county scene and confirmed last October that there would be no comeback as Waterford goalkeeper.

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stephen-okeeffe Waterford's Stephen O'Keeffe. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I suppose at the time when I made the decision I just couldn’t make myself give the commitment that’s needed at that level, but I wasn’t making a sweeping statement in my head that this is going to be it for me forever.

“It’s just as the year went on and I was enjoying playing with Ballygunner and having a bit of time back in my own life, then it became clear from that.”

Saturday’s game sees them renew acquaintances with Ballyhale Shamrocks, the Kilkenny kingpins that bettered them in the 2019 semi-final by five points.

“It essentially came down to the fact that we had a goal chance and we didn’t get it and they had a goal chance and they did take it,” says O’Keeffe.

“It certainly wasn’t a case of being ahead and then getting white line fever and any regrets. It was just a sense of we can compete at this level and we were mad to get back into the All-Ireland series again and give it another shot I suppose.

“They have a lot of star players in their forwards that would be the envy of a lot of clubs around the country. But we do pride ourselves in our backs and keeping clean sheets and keeping scores down as much as possible. We definitely have a lot of confidence in ourselves as a defensive unit, we’re under no illusions how hard the challenge is.”

BTL 5

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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