It has been as much a introspective odyssey as a journey of awakening for Robbie Hogan’s Ballyea who now stand on the precipice of their greatest hour, writes Eoin Brennan.
Robbie Hogan has developed a keen tunnel vision over the past seven months as his side finally made the graduation from potential to monumental.
That maturation and sole focus on their undoubted strengths has reaped every reward on offer so far but the ultimate treasure is now only 60 minutes away and it just couldn’t come soon enough.
“This is the one that really matters. Everything else that went before is consigned to the history books now and our complete focus is on this.
“There is no bigger prize for a club player than to run out on Croke Park on Paddy’s Day so we are delighted to get there number one but it’s really about making that opportunity count now that is the main focus.
“Cuala are a serious outfit and it’s almost a Dublin city against Ballyea but we’re proud of where we come from and we’ll look to go out and put a good performance in. We can only concentrate on our own game and what makes us tick as we have done all year.
“That said, we are very aware of the threats that they have, they have ten county hurlers and we have five so two-thirds of their team are of a county standard while five or ours are. But we have great faith in the other lads and more importantly we also have an abundance of leaders in the squad.
“In any sport, leaders will do something special or inspirational. They won’t wait for the perfect moment, they’ll grab a moment and then make it perfect. And that’s what we are blessed with at the moment, fellas that are completely honest and if they’re not performing, they’ll put their hands up themselves and say that wasn’t good enough.
“[Ger] Loughnane often spoke about leaders in every line and we’re lucky that we have a county representative on every line and it does help the lads around them.
“So while it is a huge task – I mean even the logistics of getting to Dublin on Paddy’s Day is tricky in itself – it’s a journey that any club would love to take.
“So it’s the least of our worries really I suppose, we might sweat a bit on the way but we’ll get there.”
They have already made that pilgrimage, just over a week ago when provided with the chance of a 20 minute puck around in Croke Park after the All-Ireland Club Camogie finals. A hugely beneficial familiarisation mission in terms of contextualising the grandeur and logistics of GAA Headquarters for both players and management according to Hogan.
“You go into the dressing rooms in Croke Park and it really hits home that it’s a serious stadium. I suppose it’s an arena more than anything else and even walking out onto the field, there’s an initially gasp as to the magnitude of the stadium so it was great to get that out of the way, that initial introduction.
“We are now familiar with the dressing rooms and the stadium and all that concerns us now is what is within the four lines. Anything other than that, we have no control over so at the end of the day, it’s just another pitch. There is a bit more glitz to it admittedly but it’s still what happens on the pitch next Friday that will concern us.”
Their journey to this point has almost been the perfect storm as with a full squad at their disposal for practically the first time, they hardened their resolve and resilience in the county campaign before using that new-found confidence to play with real freedom in the provincial and All-Ireland series.
“I suppose the stars aligned in a way and things kind of fell into place. And you can be lucky with things like injuries too as we were relatively injury free and a few lads came back into the squad at the right time to push lads that were on the team.
“There was a bit of growing up to be done too. We first met in December and had a honest chat and the likes of Joe Neylon stood up and said ‘right, there are nine county players here and I want to be number ten picked on the team.’ And to hear lads like Joe saying that shows that the realisation within the squad that they needed to take more responsibility. And look at Joe now, he’s performing very well and has his position nailed on.
“We just didn’t want another year wasted because realistically time moves on and won’t wait for any man or team and every year some other team is getting stronger. So while people say we have a great group of players, you’ll get your opportunity but if you don’t take it, there’s another group from another group coming. So we had to make the best of it.
“When you look back on it though, we have been on the road for the bones of 15 months now. To put it into context, if you look at an inter-county year, you start on the field in January and the best case scenario, you aim for the first week of September. Only two teams can get there so if you do, that is considered a long year.
“Now put six months onto that and that’s where we are, St Patrick’s Day is roughly six months after that so it has been a campaign and a half really.
“I remember being back in Kildysart one night after Christmas and we couldn’t see the sliotar from the sleet on the astroturf. And I remember saying to the lads that it’s a bit of an endurance test and it’s the team that can endure it the best, just keeps knuckling down doing the sessions and look forward to the next session, that’s the team that will progress.
“So it has been a season and a half really but obviously we are delighted to be there.”
Delighted but fully worthy of their All-Ireland final spot that puts them among a special grouping as only the fourth club team in the county to get to this prestigious stage.
However, playing the game and not the occasion is Hogan’s key mantra.
“You only dream of days like this really but in reality you still have to do the hard graft and even though the game is on in the arena of Croke Park, you still have to do the basics right and that’s what we’ll be working hard on this week, doing the simple things and doing them well.
“And most importantly, have no regrets.”