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'He was watching down over us' - squad member's tragic death drove Ballyhale to All-Ireland glory

Eoin Doyle died last April and his old jersey has been hanging in Ballyhale’s dressing room every game since.

Henry Shefflin celebrates at the final whistle with Michael Fennelly Henry Shefflin celebrates at the final whistle with Michael Fennelly. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Kevin O’Brien reports from Croke Park

WHEN BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS took to the field in Croke Park yesterday, they were playing for more than just a trophy.

Sure, a record seventh All-Ireland title was at stake, but as the club tragically learned earlier this season, some things in life just supersede sport.

Eoin Doyle’s old jersey was proudly hanging up in the Ballyhale dressing rooms under the Cusack Stand. The memory of their former team-mate was never from the players’ minds.

Panellist Doyle sadly lost his life last April in a motorbike accident. His former jersey has been a constant presence in the Ballyhale dressing rooms on matchdays since.

County and provincial titles have followed, before their convincing All-Ireland success over St Thomas delivered the big one and confirmed their status as hurling’s greatest club.

Captain Michael Fennelly dedicated the victory to Doyle in his acceptance speech.

“Back in February 2018, we started this journey with this team,” he said.

“We’re finishing now on St Patrick’s Day but we’ve one less player and that’s Eoin Doyle. We brought Eoin’s memory with us the whole year along, with a jersey in the dressing room, and this cup is in dedication to him and what we’ve done.”

Henry Shefflin, who won his 14th senior All-Ireland title between club and county and his first as a manager, echoed Fennelly’s sentiment afterwards.

“There’s been some amazing days, there’s been some very sad days – burying Eoin Doyle, the passing of Eoin Doyle, one of our panel members. It’s like life, sport is full of ups and downs.”

He added that Doyle’s jersey in the dressing room was “definitely” a driving force for their run to the Tommy Moore Cup.

“I think so because he was a panel member. We lost two other young chaps; Sean Malone and Martin Duggan as well (in 2011), fellas that would be very friendly with Conor Walsh and Richie Reid.

“That’s real life. Today is about sport, about enjoyment, about expressing ourselves. That’s what I said to the lads, ‘Whatever you do, enjoy it’.

“If you’re enjoying your hurling I think you hurl with more freedom. I think you saw that with Colin (Fennelly)’s movement, his striking. That’s what you want, that’s what we asked them for, ‘Go out and be yourselves’.

“We just asked them to perform as best they can and I think they did that.

“I think Eoin Doyle was watching down over us.”

Ballyhale players celebrate after the game Ballyhale players celebrate after the game. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Whatever the future holds for Shefflin the manager, leading his club to All-Ireland glory in his debut campaign on the sideline will be hard to beat. Managing Kilkenny will surely follow at some point down the line whenever Brian Cody decides he’s had enough.

“It feels strange to be honest,” the 11-time All-Star admitted. “Little did I think when I took on this job that I was going to end up here. It’s just been an amazing journey.

“I must say that from the get-go the lads have applied themselves very well. I’m delighted, it was always a hope of ours that they’d come up here and compete in Croke Park and I’m delighted they did, especially in the second-half, I think they showcased all their skills.

The luck we had in the Kilkenny county semi-final last year too, we were two points down with a minute to go. Everything has gone our way this year, it’s just been one of those years.

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“I must say the players have performed very, very well too, they’ve worked very hard, they’ve got the basics of the game very right and then their skill will take over and their point shooting today was excellent.”

Man-of-the-match Colin Fennelly shot the lights out with 2-4, while TJ Reid’s nine points and Adrian Mullen’s haul of 0-5 guided the Kilkenny champions to victory.

Fennelly’s second green flag was a thing of beauty: a deft flick to the far corner from a tight angle after Mullen’s delivery inside.

“It was a brilliant goal,” said Shefflin. “That’s his confidence, just never took his eye off the ball. I think once you get the ball into him he’s very, very dangerous. That gave us a great grounding, great confidence.

We went in at half-time and hadn’t performed brilliantly but were still five points up. We knew that if they did put the gas on there would be a good chance they could pull away and that’s what happened.

“We spoke at half-time here today, we were five points up, and it was just something I thought of in the lead up to the match.

“18 months ago when I was in that dressing-room, we were six points ahead in the county semi-final and we ended up losing the second-half by 16 points. Anyone walking out of Nowlan Park that day would have said, ‘Jesus, I don’t know about these lads’.

So it’s been an amazing turnaround. But wasn’t it great to use that today at half-time, to say, ‘Lads, that’s where you were and look where ye are now’. And they really drove on in the second-half.”

TJ Reid made his senior debut with Ballyhale as a 17-year-old goalkeeper, but he’s since become one of the most potent finishers the game has seen.

At the age of 31, Reid has now won seven Kilkenny championships, five Leinsters and four All-Irelands with his club.

“I’m delighted, that’s four All-Ireland clubs I have with the Ballyhale Shamrocks team,” the centre-forward said afterwards.

It’s a special feeling, celebrating with friends and family. Even now, heading back, you’ll be with the family and community, just the morale that the whole parish brings. It’s a special feeling.”

He hailed Shefflin’s impact as a manager in his first season over the team.

“We had the previous management for four years I think. It was just the whole new freshness. He’s a modern player, he’s only after retiring in the last year. He’s modern in terms of how the game is changing.

“So we needed to change our style of play. You saw today how we went long and at times held possession around the middle of the field. And we used our coolness on the ball, picking our five and 10-yard passes to players that were free.

“Overall his hurling brain and his leadership and his motivation is great. If players aren’t putting in the effort, he’s on their backs straight away.”

The three-time All-Star also gave a little insight into his mindset while revealing that the black and amber jersey is never far from his mind.

“Look, we’re here in Croke Park in March now, hopefully we’ll see Croke Park again later on in the year.

“But that’s another story. I’m delighted, over the moon.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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