Christy O'Connor on the magic of club finals: Hurt fuels Dunloy and Ballyhale at Croke Park

Christy O'Connor on the magic of club finals: Hurt fuels Dunloy and Ballyhale at Croke Park

Ben O'Connor, Newtownshandrum, in action against Michael McClements, Dunloy, in the 2004 AIB All-Ireland final. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE 

IN The Gunners Way, the recently released documentary on Ballygunner’s incredible All-Ireland club success last year, Dessie Hutchinson and Philip Mahony painted a vivid picture of the mood and tone of the dressingroom at half-time in the All-Ireland final against Ballyhale Shamrocks.

Ballygunner had played well in the first half, but they were still three points down. They felt that there was a lot more in them, but the dominant theme of the discussion was making the players absolutely aware that they might never find themselves in this place again.

“The main message at half-time was that you never know when we’re going to be back here,” said Hutchinson.

O’Mahony was even more graphic in emphasising the importance of that message.

“There have been so many teams that play All-Ireland club finals, who may have thought that they’d be back the year after,” he said.

“But they didn’t get back.”

Ballygunner went on to win that All-Ireland final in the most dramatic fashion imaginable through a Harry Ruddle goal with the last play. They had serious designs on becoming the first Munster club to retain an All-Ireland this year, but that quest died in the semi-final when Ballyhale atoned for last year’s devastating loss.

Ballyhale are on the verge of history now as they go hunting for a ninth All-Ireland club title. But they are also seeking to do something no other hurling club has managed in the past — win an All-Ireland club a year after losing a final.

Ballyhale Shamrocks' Adrian Mullen sees his shot saved by Stephen O'Keefe of Ballygunner. Picture: INPHO/Tom Maher
Ballyhale Shamrocks' Adrian Mullen sees his shot saved by Stephen O'Keefe of Ballygunner. Picture: INPHO/Tom Maher

That search is a dominant theme of tomorrow’s All-Ireland club finals because Kilmacud Crokes, who also lost last year’s football final, are also back seeking redemption. In the 51-year history of the All-Ireland club championships, this is the first time that two defeated finalists have returned to the same stage 12 months later.

It has never been easy to get back to a final in the aftermath of such disappointment, especially when the pathway is loaded with so many booby traps and trip-wires along the way.

RETURN

In the history of the club football championship, only three clubs have managed to return to a club final straight after losing a final — Clann na nGael (Roscommon), Nemo Rangers, and Kilcoo.

The Down champions returned to the final two years after losing the 2020 final but there was no championship in 2021.

Nemo and Kilcoo managed to make up for the disappointment but Clann na nGael will always be regarded as one of the most heartbreaking storylines of the club championship, having lost four successive finals between 1987-90.

To shovel even more salt into the wound, the Roscommon club also lost the 1983 final to Portlaoise.

Clann na nGael lost those other finals to St Finbarr’s, Nemo, Baltinglass, and Burren. In some of those All-Ireland semi-final victories, they beat previous All-Ireland winners in Portlaoise and Burren but they could never get it done in the final.

Nemo were staring down a perilous barrel during the 2003 All-Ireland final when they were on the verge of losing a third All-Ireland final in a row.

They were under serious pressure after losing their central defenders, Niall Geary and Martin Cronin, to injury within 18 minutes. Crossmolina were rampant at stages of that game, but it was an extraordinary display of mental fortitude by a Nemo team that had lost the previous two finals to Crossmolina and Ballinderry.

That achievement stands comparison with any in the club’s glittering history. In the circumstances, it was Nemo’s greatest victory.

“This probably ranks as the highest,” said Nemo’s Steven O’Brien after that game.

What made this so special is to come back after a couple of disappointments. Losing an All-Ireland final is a terrible feeling and you want to come back here and win it with the same group of players. And we have managed that.”

Ballyhale are on a similar trail now but the club they are facing — Dunloy Cúchullains — could write a book on the subject.

Prior to this year, Dunloy were the only club that managed to return to a hurling final after losing the previous year’s final. Yet they weren’t able to ease that pain the second time around; Dunloy lost successive finals in 1995 and 1996, and in 2003 and 2004.

Dunloy Cuchullains players Nigel Elliott, Sean Elliott and Ryan McGarry celebrate beating St Thomas last month. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Dunloy Cuchullains players Nigel Elliott, Sean Elliott and Ryan McGarry celebrate beating St Thomas last month. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Dunloy will be driven on by those memories tomorrow, especially when a host of sons from those previous final losses are part of the current group. The Dunloy manager Gregory O’Kane played in all those previous four final defeats. So did Alastair Elliott, uncle of the current goalkeeper Ryan Elliott, whose father Shane was goalkeeper for the 1995 and 1996 losses.

Dunloy are chasing that coveted first All-Ireland, whereas Ballyhale are seeking a record ninth. Yet Ballyhale want this All-Ireland more than any of the previous eight.

That desperate pursuit began shortly after last year’s final.

“We took the loss on the chin and when we came back this year we did everything we could to get back to an All-Ireland final,” said Ballyhale’s Adrian Mullen this week.

Even on the bus home you were kind of just thinking, ‘we want to be back competing to get to an All-Ireland final’.”

Kilmacud have been driven by a similar level of hurt all year too because, similar to Ballyhale, Kilmacud also lost last year’s All-Ireland final to a late goal, in extra-time.

And ever since, that deep hurt has been the poison in the bite of both squads.

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