FRIDAY is a most unlikely All-Ireland club final for Ballyea.
Back in May 2016 their thoughts were on getting back into the championship and avoiding what was already looking like a relegation minefield after they lost their opening encounter to Éire Óg. What followed in August, September and October was nothing short of remarkable.
By early November they were worthy Munster champions and the sights were being set even higher. There is just one box to tick now and I would be quietly confident that they will tick it this Friday.
What has set Ballyea aside from so many other contenders this year has been their ability to improve from match to match. Against Thurles in Cusack Park just seven days after winning their first ever county title, they refused to be beaten and finished that game playing the best club hurling we have seen in Ennis in decades.
Their display in the Munster club final was a revelation considering the occasion. They then belied an eleven week gap which could have proven momentum sapping against St Thomas’ by starting that game like a team on fire.
This is a compliment to the squad on the field and to those preparing them off it. They have been ‘right’ every day for nine championship games in a row and have delivered every time. That’s a powerful combination to bring to Croke Park.
Cuala have much to recommend them as well and there is no doubt that they can run up a score if given the space and invitation to take defenders on. Their last two displays hint at a serious team but this being Cheltenham week we can question the form lines of those wins. Neither Slaughtneil nor O’Loughlin Gaels had real pace in their rearguard, the speed of the Dublin attack subsequently giving them a huge edge over both. In fairness to the Dubs, they pressed that advantage home.
But they will not have met a back division as tight, fast and at times cute as Ballyea. This is where the game will be won and lost. If the Clare champions can stifle the Cuala attack, deprive them of room, the running lanes and obviously the ball, then they have enough elsewhere to get the job done.
Cuala’s last two displays hint at a serious team but this being Cheltenham week we can question the form lines of those wins. Neither Sluaghtneil nor O’Loughlin Gaels had real pace in their rearguard.
While some will look to the county stars on show and their experience, it will take a lot more than Tony Kelly, Paul Flanagan, Gudgie O’Connell, Jack Browne, Gary Brennan and future county star Niall Deasy to get Ballyea over the line. The mainliners will play their part and we will see the sprinkling of stardust, but often games like this are won by the unheralded of heroes.
Friday is the day of days for Kevin Sheehan, Brian Carrigg, Joe Neylon, James Murphy, Stan Lineen, Pat Joe Connolly, Cathal Doohan, Pearse Lillis, Damien Burke,Martin O’Leary, David Egan, Aonghas Keane and Francie Neylon. Plenty of them will stand up, one or two could soar. They can be the difference. This is where club finals are won. And lost.
We can expect the right attitude, workrate and unquenchable spirit from Ballyea. They will throw everything at Cuala. Will it be enough?
I think so. Good as this Dublin side are, they have not met intensity like this. The Bally Boys have lifted every step of this journey and there is but one more step to take. It leads to the Tommy Moore Cup and come Saturday night we’ll see it back in Clare.