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Dublin: 11°C Monday 19 April 2021

John Conlon's advice helped set Tony Kelly and Ballyea on road to first Munster club final

The Clare club play their first provincial senior decider in Semple Stadium on Sunday.

Ballyea celebrating at the end of the game Ballyea players celebrating their county replay win over Clonlara Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

BALLYEA ARE GETTING used to entering unchartered territory.

Last month they won the Clare senior hurling championship for the first time.

Seven days later, they represented Clare for the first time in the Munster arena and won a thrilling rollercoaster of a game after extra-time against Thurles Sarsfields, a team ostensibly on course to challenge for an All-Ireland.

And now next Sunday, they are set to sample Munster final day for the first time.

Their achievement is all the more admirable considering the easiest and most natural thing to do after the county final was to be happy with their lot. The winter was there for them to bask in the glow of local glory.

Yet timely advice from one of their foes proved invaluable. A group of lads from Clonlara came up to a celebratory Ballyea the Monday after the county final.

John Conlon was 19 back in 2008 when Clonlara won their maiden Clare senior title. They went down to Cork for the Munster quarter-final and got trounced by 16 points by Sarsfields.

Clonlara’s side was stacked with young talented hurlers but they haven’t been on the podum since, losing three finals in Clare. Conlon’s words reminded his Clare team-mate Tony Kelly of the precious chance that was there for Ballyea to seize.

Tony Kelly and John Conlon Tony Kelly and John Conlon after the 2013 All-Ireland final win Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“They came up to us on the Monday,” recalls Kelly.

“John was just saying when they won in 2008, it was their first one in years. They made the mistake of celebrating and being in the pub Wednesday and Thursday, and then playing on the Sunday.

“He said that was one of the biggest regrets he had because he said they haven’t won a county final since, haven’t had a proper crack at a Munster club campaign.

“To be fair to our lads, after that Monday night, I don’t think we had anyone in the pub on the Tuesday which was a shock!

“We have a lot of county lads as well so they understand the whole concept, the whole importance of it as compared to the club lads who mightn’t be used to a big win like that.

“We were back on the field on Wednesday night. There was a focus to do ourselves justice.”

They didn’t have a simple road to victory in that Munster semi-final against Thurles Sarsfields.

The Tipp champions were flying that day in Ennis, Pa Bourke clipping over a point in the 49th minute that pushed them seven clear. Then Kelly strode forward to make the game his own, reeling off four points to give Ballyea hope and then seeing Clare football captain Gary Brennan pitch in with that dramatic goal.

“With maybe eight minutes to go and you look up at the scoreboard and see Thurles are seven points up, winning probably just doesn’t even come into your head, just keep going til the end.

“You’re thinking that you don’t want to get hammered here when you’re in that kind of situation, you just want to keep plugging away. Not give up.

“We were in the same situation against Clonlara the first day, we were five points down in the drawn game with maybe eight minutes to go as well and got a goal to bring it back.”

AIB GAA Munster Senior Hurling Club Final Media Day Ballyea's Tony Kelly Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

Kelly is their marquee man, his 1-10 haul against Thurles Sarsfields a graphic illustration of how lethal the 2013 Hurler of the Year can be at club level.

But Ballyea’s squad is a curious case, stockpiled equally with Clare senior hurlers and footballers, their location at the tip of the hurling stronghold in East Clare meaning they draw players from the West Clare football heartlands.

“They’re a massive bonus for us. Our captain Stan Lineen is actually from back there, from Kilmihil.

“Martin O’Leary, Pearse Lillis, all them lads as well have experience from county senior football panels.

Pearse Lillis celebrates scoring a goal Ballyea's Pearse Lillis celebrates hitting the net against Thurles Sarsfields Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“They’re a big plus to us because we need all the numbers we get, especially being in the same parish as Clarecastle, who’d be a predominantly more dominant club, history wise over the past 20 or 30 years.

“Gary (Brennan) – I know he was excellent the last day hurling wise – but even to have him around training, to talk, just stuff like that, he’s brilliant.

“It maybe takes the pressure off the county hurlers more so. The footballers, their fresh input into the whole thing is fantastic.

“I think they’re a massive help for the club players as well. They’re probably sick of listening to myself or Jack Browne or Paul Flanagan giving advice.

“It’s refreshing coming from Gary or Pearse or Martin O’Leary or one of them.”

Gary Brennan celebrates Ballyea's Gary Brennan Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

And now they’re an hour away from landing a Munster senior title, a prize that has eluded Clare clubs since 2000.

Kelly knows the threat Glen Rovers pose, he’s witnessed first-hand against Cork the prowess in defence of Stephen McDonnell and in attack of Patrick Horgan.

Stephen McDonnell and Tony Kelly Cork's Stephen McDonnell and Clare's Tony Kelly Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He caught their Cork county final on TG4 in early October and is aware of the battle-hardened outfit they are colliding with.

The 22 year-old’s Munster record is flawless so far from minor and U21 deciders with Clare. Sunday is his first outing in a senior final.

“Five (so far), won all five. Hopefully six (by Sunday)! It’s unknown territory.

“But at the same time, there is a buzz in the camp, make hay while the sun shines because we might never again win a county final or get to a Munster final.”


Sunday 20 November
AIB Munster SHC club final 
Ballyea (Clare) v Glen Rovers (Cork)
Semple Stadium, Thurles, 2pm


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Fintan O'Toole

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