Christy O'Connor on how Ballygiblin went from Avondhu underdogs to Croke Park

North Cork side are back on Jones Road on Saturday afternoon after a remarkable two years during which they've only been beaten once in championship
Christy O'Connor on how Ballygiblin went from Avondhu underdogs to Croke Park

Ballygiblin's Shane Beston racing away from Horeswood's Sean Hunt in their last game before Christmas. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

IN the Croke Park dressing room after last year’s All-Ireland club Junior final defeat to Mooncoin, the Ballygiblin squad and management posed for a group photograph in the warm-up area.

The photo, which later appeared on Twitter, was full of smiling faces and positive body language. It certainly didn’t look like a squad which had just lost an All-Ireland final in Croke Park.

The club were hugely disappointed with the result but that photograph reflected a group comfortable in their own skin, and full of pride at having produced an outstanding performance that just fell short.

Ballygiblin couldn’t have done any more in what was one of the highest-quality Junior hurling matches ever played. 

In the aftermath of that defeat, footage appeared on social media of Ballygiblin players and management around Mitchelstown the following day. Some of it was from the successful auction and charity head shave of coach Ronan Dwane and Davy Norris in the Tavern.

When all the donations and contributions from club members and supporters was added up, €8,000 was raised, with €4,000 for ACT (Aid Cancer Treatment) and €4,000 going to the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association. It said a huge amount about the group that, despite the disappointment of an All-Ireland final defeat, Ballygiblin could still come so strongly together and raise much-needed funds for two important charities.

Yet it also underlined how and why Ballygiblin had travelled as far as they did.

Mark Keane of Ballygiblin looks on as Seán O'Sullivan of Ballygiblin prepares to take a free at Croke Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Mark Keane of Ballygiblin looks on as Seán O'Sullivan of Ballygiblin prepares to take a free at Croke Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

The next question was how far could they keep going. Moving up a grade in Cork was a huge challenge.

Yet after the system was changed where the Premier Junior champions would now represent Cork in Munster instead of the Junior A champions, Ballygiblin knew deep down that they had an opportunity to do something that no other side in the country which had lost an All-Ireland Junior final had been able to do the following season – get back to Croke Park to fully heal that hurt.

The resilience and progress of this group has been remarkable over the last two years.

Ciarán Quilty of Mooncoin shoots as Colin English of Ballygiblin closes in last season. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Ciarán Quilty of Mooncoin shoots as Colin English of Ballygiblin closes in last season. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

That was first evident in their second group game in Avondhu in 2021 when they were 10 points down against Fermoy before storming back to secure a draw. That was the only championship game Ballygiblin didn’t win in 2021, while the All-Ireland final defeat last February is still the only game they have lost since this remarkable odyssey began.

SETBACKS

One of the most impressive aspects of this relentless Ballygiblin crusade is how they have able to find a way to overcome setbacks throughout the last two seasons, especially injury losses.

They started the county semi-final against Russell Rovers without three of their best forwards. Darragh Flynn has been hampered by injury over the last year, not starting a game between the All-Ireland final and the 2022 county final. Colin English is also no longer available.

They have also discovered a habit of winning tight games, which was really evident against Ballygarvan in the group, and in the county semi-final against Russell Rovers. In both of those matches, Ballygiblin hit 0-25, although the match against Russell Rovers was only decided after extra time.

The sides had been level on 10 occasions in normal time before Darragh Flynn drove Ballygiblin over the line when scoring four points after his introduction off the bench.

Ballygiblin conceded two goals against Ballygarvan, and one against Russell Rovers, which was a complete rarity considering the meagre number of green flags they’ve shipped over the last couple of years.

The numbers offer more proof as to how hard they’ve been to beat; Ballygiblin haven’t conceded a goal now since the first minute of the county final; in Cork over the last two seasons, Ballygiblin have only conceded eight goals; in eight games outside of Cork in the same period, Ballygiblin have only shipped one goal, which came against Skeheenarinky in last year’s Munster final.

Winning their last four games in the provincial and All-Ireland championship by an aggregate margin of 34 points hints at a side that is maturing, evolving, developing and improving.

This side definitely looks better than last year’s team, which is largely reflected through the massive improvement and impact of Cork footballer Cathail O’Mahony; in Ballygiblin’s last six games, O’Mahony has hit 1-13, 1-12 from play.

Ballygiblin's Cathail O'Mahony kicks away from Horeswood's David Murphy. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Ballygiblin's Cathail O'Mahony kicks away from Horeswood's David Murphy. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Ballygiblin’s best two performances of the season were against Russell Rovers and Colligan from Waterford in the Munster semi-final, when they blew a decent side away, winning by 12 points in the end.

They only conceded 0-10 that day, which is Ballygiblin’s average concession rate since the county final. The highest total they have conceded in that period is 0-11.

Their game management and tactical maturity has provided further evidence of their improvement and Ballygiblin are hot favourites to win that coveted All-Ireland title. At face value, a Cork side taking on a Sligo team in an All-Ireland hurling final looks like a foregone conclusion but this final against Easkey is anything but.

This Easkey side provided the backbone to the Sligo team which reached last year’s Division 2B league final, along with being very competitive in the Christy Ring Cup.

Easkey’s Andy Kilcullen was the second-highest scorer in the 2022 Christy Ring when bagging 3-41 in five matches.

This won’t be as easy as many people in Cork expect it to be. But considering their experience, combined with the coaching and tactical nous of Ronan Dwane, Ballygiblin should be All-Ireland champions by Saturday evening.

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