Fergal Hegarty is no stranger to All-Ireland hurling finals and the middle of the hallowed field, but this Friday will be his first time patrolling the Croke Park sidelines. Emmet Moloney spoke to the Ballyea coach ahead of Friday’s historic club final.
THERE are a couple of the Ballyea squad and management that have experience of the big day in Croke Park and coach Fergal Hegarty is one of them, although he is the first to say that this was a long time ago;
“Definitely. Croke Park is a different stadium to the one we played in back in the mid nineties. When we were up there having a look around and having a few pucks I was struck with the change when you are standing in the middle of the field. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to the odd flashback of Johnny Dooley haring away from me!” he says.
That recent Sunday evening visit to Croke Park was a vital one for preparations says Fergal, the perfect time for letting your mid drift for a split second;
“Yes, we got that out of the way that night I hope! I know when we arrive there next Friday it is down to business. But that was the value of being allowed into the ground and having a few pucks on the field. You need that, to get your bearings. It is an incredible stadium and having that time in a relaxed setting last Sunday week should stand to us,” he reports.
An All-Ireland club final is a rare and wonderful experience for a club. So how do management team temper the excitement of such an occasion with the need to win a hurling match? It is a tricky and unique task Fergal admits, but he thinks that Ballyea have to do a bit of both;
“You cannot ignore the enormity of the occasion and what it means to the people of Ballyea and beyond the parish. Trying to shut yourself off from that excitement would be impossible I think. So we have tried to combine the occasion with the match in a way.
“We have to embrace that this is an All-Ireland club final, St Patrick’s Day in Croke Park. There is no ignoring that. So we have enjoyed the build-up, we’ve had fun with it. We have spoken about the day and you’d have to be blind to see what it means to the club and the players.
“But we also have a game to win. This is a hurling match that has to be won. We didn’t come this far to go up to Dublin just to enjoy the day. The squad are going to Dublin with our only focus on the game itself.
“So while we have been around the hype and enjoyed it with family, supporters and friends, when we have trained and spoken as a squad, our concentration is on Cuala. As we have gotten closer to Friday, the focus is now total on the job we have to do,” Fergal says, adding that the players themselves know what is in front of them.
“We’re lucky with this squad, they are the type of lads that knuckle down when they have work to do. A week after their first ever county title they went into Ennis and battled back to beat Thurles in extra time. The Munster final was a new experience but they were not overawed with that. So we haven’t changed too much in how we get ready, we trust the players and the players have repaid that trust with their performances. Only one more to come hopefully!” he says.
Opponents Cuala are the bookies favourites, and deservedly so says the coach with a smile on his face;
“Of course they are. Leinster champions and very impressive in their march to the final. That doesn’t surprise me!” he laughs;
“On a serious note, Cuala, no more than ourselves, know that once that ball is throw in the team that is right on the day, the one most tuned in, the team that is working hard for each other, the team that gets the breaks, they’re the ones that will be left standing. They won’t be paying any attention to odds, no more than ourselves,” Hegarty reports.
What does he know of the Leinster champions?
“I have seen some of their games and against Slaughtneil and O’Loughlin Gaels you couldn’t but be impressed by their quality. Their strengths are obvious. They are quick, strong and very skilful. In most games they are running up a big score, so we’ll have to be on from the word go to match them.
“Having said, I’d expect they’ll be feeling the same about us,” he adds.
Twenty years ago Fergal was winning his second All-Ireland medal in Croke Park. Did he ever think he’d be going back with a Clare club, patrolling the sideline?
“You never know what happens in hurling. Back then, probably no! And back in May of last year when Éire Óg beat us in the first round of the championship I think Cusack Park wasn’t high on our agenda, never mind Croke Park.
“But here we are. We’re an hour away from an All-Ireland club title and we’re going to Dublin with high hopes and confidence in ourselves. That’s what carried us this far,” says Fergal, who also adds a closing line;
“It has been a very special journey but we are all conscious of one fact. It’s isn’t over yet,” he concludes.