Tony Kelly has been Ballyea’s key player in their All Ireland Senior Hurling Club campaign. On St. Patrick’s Day they face Dublin’s Cuala for the 25th anniversary of AIB’s sponsorship of the club championships. Both teams have endured long, tough campaigns to reach the pinnacle of club hurling. Players like Kelly will need to be in fine form to overcome a strong Cuala outfit boasting several hurlers on the Dublin senior panel.

Tony Kelly of Ballyea ahead of this year’s AIB GAA Senior Hurling Club Championship Final.

Tony Kelly of Ballyea ahead of this year’s AIB GAA Senior Hurling Club Championship Final.

Whenever players reach the Holy Grail of an All-Ireland club hurling final, especially their first one, it is customary to play down the occasion and trade a lot of clichés about ‘just getting a performance’. But not Tony Kelly in this interview. “A club like Ballyea? This is our one chance to win it, I don’t think we’ll ever get the chance again,” he says unequivocally.

All the cards, he says, fell right for Ballyea this year to win their first county and Munster titles, they now have a chance to add the ultimate accolade to that list and this might never come round again, he stresses. Ballyea needed a replay to win their first county senior final and extra-time to shock Tipp kingpins Thurles Sarsfields in Munster before taking out Cork champions Glen Rovers. Even that didn’t prepare them for the rollercoaster nature of their All-Ireland semi-final victory. They were 13 points clear in the second half only for the Galway side to haul it back to just a point. Once again it was Kelly who sealed the deal with his third point from play.

Conscious of the fickleness of sport and how Clare’s 2013 All-Ireland senior title hasn’t been reproduced since, Kelly refuses to take anything for granted. “Coming off the field that day in 2013, you probably thought ‘we could be back here next year or, if not, the year after.’ To get back with Ballyea is a bit mental. It’s a bit surreal,” he grins.

Paul Flanagan of Ballyea

To discover how this little Clare club have come to the cusp of greatness, rewind a decade to when many of their current seniors won the All-Ireland Feile (U14) title. “From that team we have Jack Browne, Gearoid O’Connell. Niall Deasy, myself, Damien Burke, Eoghan Donnellan and Joe Neylon,” Kelly explains. “I think there’s 10 lads from that Féile squad on our panel. The age group before us had the likes of Paul Flanagan and we’ve managed to keep the nucleus of two Feile teams together for a senior team.”

Kelly was part of the Clare U21s team that won three All-Ireland hurling titles in-a-row from 2012-2014 and that has also benefitted Ballyea this season. “We’ve a lot of footballers also playing with Clare, having the two county senior teams knocked out in July last year gave us a platform to train as a team the whole way through,” he explains. “It meant we finally got 20 to 25 lads to the field together instead of seven lads training and five or six county lads watching.”

Jack Browne of Ballyea

Jack Browne of Ballyea

He hopes Ballyea’s testing run will stand to them against Cuala, especially the lessons learned in the All-Ireland semi-final. “The fact that we came back and managed to survive will stand us in good stead because the final will come down to the last five or ten minutes. The last few club hurling finals have been relatively one-sided but I think this Paddy’s Day it’s going to come down to the last five to seven minutes,” he predicts.

“Cuala have done two in-a-row in Dublin so they’ve that experience as well of winning. They’ll fancy themselves just as much as we will.” Incidentally the Dublin club include former Ballyea player, Niall Keane, who is pitted against his home club. His brother Aonghus is in the Ballyea panel and their dad Michael is a former club chairman.

According to Tony Kelly, Ballyea are conscious that they’re also flying the flag for the Banner. “Yeah, definitely. It would have been easy after the county final to go on the beer for the week and turn up against Thurles and get a nice hiding,” he admits. “But the message all that week was ‘we’re representing Clare as well’ and the support we’re getting, from outside of our own club, has been huge, I think there’ll be a fair old crowd from Clare up.”

Like everyone who steps out on Croker in a club final Kelly will be motivated by the previous generations who have keep his club on the road, not least his own dad. “He managed some of us from U10 as far as U21, himself and Fergie O’Loughlin. They put so much work into us, it would mean an awful lot to people like that. We’re a small half of a parish and, historically, our good players would have played with Clarecastle including my own father. Tony Griffin probably put us on the map first, by representing Clare and winning an All Star.

“On Friday we’ll be doing it for ourselves and for them older lads because I think only they truly understand where Ballyea has come from. At U12 we always thought of ourselves as being one of the best teams in Clare. But them lads have seen Ballyea coming through junior, intermediate and now senior. For them it will be extra special and even for myself,” he adds. In conclusion, Tony stated, “I’ve won three (All-Ireland) U21s and a senior but, if I was to win on Paddy’s Day, achievement-wise, that would be out on its own by far.”

Ballyea manager Robbie Hogan, centre, with his management team, (l-r) Raymond O'Connor, Diarmuid O'Sullivan, Alan Duggan and Fergal Hegarty.

Ballyea manager Robbie Hogan, centre, with his management team, (l-r) Raymond O’Connor, Diarmuid O’Sullivan, Alan Duggan and Fergal Hegarty.