Well, who would have believed it? Certainly not me. When I heard that Ballygunner had regained the county title at Lismore’s expense in the final, I was more than a tad disappointed, feeling that the breaking up of the Mount Sion/Ballygunner axis in the county was more preferable than giving the Gunners one more chance at cracking their Munster title hoodoo. They’ve not so much being knocking on the door for years as timidly brushing it with a feather, and with a nightmare draw requiring them to beat the Clare and Tipperary champions just to reach the final, it seemed like it was going to be a case of more of the same for the suburbanites.
I doubt (just a little) whether Ballygunner were reading my mind, but a glance into the journalistic tea leaves would have yielded a similar prognosis, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor. Seemingly invincible against the champions of Cork, Ballygunner couldn’t buy a victory for years against the Clare champions. The defeats were varied, but defeats they were.
1996: gave Wolfe Tones a twelve point head start early in the second half of the Munster final. Succeeded in slashing the deficit – by eleven points.
1997: beaten by a goal by Clarecastle in the semi-final. The goal in question is the result of a free which the Clarecastle player was trying to hit over the bar, mis-hitting it and seeing it go under the bar.
1999: plenty of heat but not much light from the Waterford champions as they sink to a dispiriting defeat to St Joseph’s Doora Barefield in the final again.
Add in a couple of demoralising defeats for Mount Sion, again from the Clare champions, and it’s no surprise that I wasn’t expecting much from Ballygunner this year. It’s all very well banging on about their commitment and their effort and their peppermint, but as Éire Óg from Carlow will tell you, constantly coming back for more does not mean you will inevitably achieve your Holy Grail. The killer draw and the advancing years of their top players seemed to suggest that, for this generation at least, the cup that cheers would be denied to them.
Then again, miracles sometimes do happen. The Laois ladies footballers won the All-Ireland at the eighth time of asking, and Ade Akinbiyi scored a goal. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, their most difficult task was against St Joseph’s, what with all the baggage attached to multiple defeats to the Bannerman. Overcome a jaded St Joseph’s and the title was there for the taking. It’s not as if they hadn’t the ability, all they lacked was the belief. Winning a replay against Toomevara wasn’t as spectacular as it might seem, Ballygunner twice winning replays against the Cork champions in the recent past. Which left Blackrock, once undisputed kingpins of club hurling, but without a Munster title for even longer than Waterford. It all seems so obvious now…
There are a few of you, no doubt, already pondering the benefits this will bring to the county team. Clare’s dominance of the inter-county scene coincided with total dominance of Munster club hurling – six titles in a row, with four different clubs – and would have dominated the All-Ireland but for the mighty Athenry. So whither the county team now. Well, it really isn’t right to speculate. Normally I’d be out of the blocks like Maurice Greene to give my tuppence worth, but other than the good form of a few of Ballygunners senior players – Paul Flynn and Fergal Hartley in particular – it’s difficult to extrapolate anything national from it. Not only would it be inappropriate to try and steal too much of what is only reflected glory, it would devalue Ballygunner’s win. Like when Ireland won a multitude of under-age soccer tournies a few years back, attempts to read broader significance are unfair. Enjoy the victory for itself, and let the future take care of itself. It certainly did for the Irish soccer team.
But one piece of speculation seems reasonable enough. The monkey is off our clubs backs. The county championship looks like it is recovering after a number of years of the Mount Sion/Ballygunner duoploy. Lismore will be eyeing next years county title with renewed interest, and we’ve always known Mount Sion had the players and the infrastructure. Hurling in Waterford city has crushed all other sports, a feat unique in Irish urban centres. It would be a suitable reward for that accomplishment of the clubs of the entire county to enjoy greater success at national level.
We live in hope. In the meantime, thanks Ballygunner. You made a Déisigh living in soccer-obsessed, self-imposed exile, a happy and proud man indeed.