By Michael O Connor.
Raw emotion took over Cusack Park recently as Ballyea supported by clubs from their hinterland and afar invaded headquarters after referee Damian Fox blew the long whistle to laud their heroes who delivered the first ever county hurling title to a parish that aptly has a townland known as Paradise.
Since the turn of the millenium 11 different Clare hurling clubs out of 20 and most recently have won at least one County senior title. Only 4 clubs have namely, Crusheen, Cratloe, Clarecastle and Sixmilebridge have won more than one title since 2000. Ballyea are now in this club and most importantly won as had long been expected since the turn of the decade their first ever title before 5058 spectators in ideal hurling conditions.
The opening score in the 2nd minute fell to Clare football captain Gary Brennan and he had a second chance seconds later but sent wide. Ballyea were totally in control as Tony Kelly set up PatJoe Connolly for his sides second point. Indeed Pat Joe sent an eminently open score into the goalie's hand. Ballyea with accuracy could have been five up after four minutes. Clonlara finally got the board with a long range point, much to the relief of his team management.
Gary Brennan saw a 7th minute effort deflected over the bar with the goal waiting to be scored. It was with amazement that supporters of both sides looked on at the gaps that were being opened up in the Clonlara rearguard as Martin O Leary shot tamely at Ger O Connell that was sent out for a 65 converted by Tony Kelly to send Ballyea (0-4) to (0-1) clear. The intensity of Tony Kelly saw a first time delivery sent into the Clonlara square. It broke to Martin O Leary who flicked it along ground and Gary Brennan finished to the net. Clonlara were now 6 in arrears and that was reduced to five with a Cathal O Connell free after 12 minutes. John Conlon narrowed it to four seconds later from play as somehow it felt that Ballyea might have blown out their best. Michael O Loughlin scored a hard earned point. Brian Carrigg dispossessed Cathal O Connell as he was about to shoot for goal. Within a minute the ball was in the Clonlara net as Niall Deasy raced unchallenged for goal and Ballyea were (2-4) to (0-4) clear after 16 minutes. Cormac O Donovan was switched perhaps too late on Niall Deasy to curb his influence on the wing.
Cathal O Connell hit back from a free as Clonlara over the following five minutes at best curtailed Ballyea's attacking prowess and indeed hit two Cathal O Connell frees to reduce the deficit to four points entering the final five minutes. Niall Deasy was well contained in the second quarter after his early exploits as Nicky O Connell was now sweeping but more was to come for Deasy in the second half.
Cathal O Connell who had a profitable hour from frees had his fourth score before corner back Joe Neylon was a folk hero with a great effort as the last score of the half fell to Colm Galvin to leave three points between the sides (2-5) to (0-8) at the break.
The Intensity of exchanges increased markedly in the second half as the referee allowed the game to be played at hard but fair level. Niall Deasy restored the four point lead with the first score of the new half before Cathal O Connell, Brian Carrigg and a great score from Darach Honan all by the 36th minute saw Ballyea hold a (2-7) to (0-10) advantage.
No matter how much Clonlara showed flashes of brilliance they could not score and simply hoofing the ball to the left hand side of John Conlon did not deliver much despite a much improved effort by Conlon from the drawn game. In the space of two minutes Ballyea went from three to five points clear as Tony Kelly (free) and a great crossfield ball from Kelly to the onrushing Jack Browne ended with the full back on target. This score meant that the entire Ballyea full back scored and their three point tally was the difference in the end between the sides.
Colm Galvin and Cathal O Connell narrowed the deficit to three as Clonlara had to defend in depth to deny a succession of Ballyea efforts from a variety of attackers as surprisingly Cormac O Donovan who was struggling but could have been moved elsewhere was instead subbed. Clonlara against the run of play struck for a goal and a well executed one at that from John Conlon. There was mild controversy when John Conlon's argued that a point effort was waved wide. The sides were level in the 47th minute and continued to be so by the 54th minute as the action was relentless with both sides striking for two points each courtesy of Tony Kelly, Niall Deasy and Cathal O Connell (2).
Ballyea took the lead with a Niall Deasy free in the 57th minute as Clonlara were in dire need of an equaliser as the clock ticked towards sixty. It was Ballyea that got the next score as Damian Burke found himself unmarked and he sent the ball over for a two point lead. This became three as Tony Kelly was on hand in the 61st minute. One last effort of nailbiting hurling fell to Clonlara as Darach Honan was pulled down by Gearoid O Connell. The free was cleared and the last ball sent in by Clonlara was caught majestically in the air by Jack Browne and within seconds Ballyea were county champions for the first time in Clare GAA history.
BALLYEA: Kevin Sheehan, Joe Neylon (0-1), Jack Browne (0-1), Brian Carrigg (0-1), Paul Flanagan, Gearoid O Connell, James Murphy Tony Kelly (0-4), Stan Lineen, Niall Deasy (1-3), Pat Joe Connolly (0-1), Cathal Doohan, Martin O Leary, Gary Brennan (1-2), Pearse Lillis. Subs: Damian Burke (0-1) for O Leary, David Egan for Connolly.
CLONLARA: Ger O Connell, Cillian Fennessy, Domhnall O Donovan, Gareth Kennedy, Nicky O Connell (0-1) Neil Ryan Oisin O Brien, Cormac O Donovan, Colm Galvin (0-2), Darach Honan (0-1), James Hastings, Ger Powell, Cathal O Connell (0-8), John Conlon (1-1), Michael O Loughlin (0-1) Subs: Shane O Brien for N Ryan, Pat O Hare for Cormac O Donovan, Padraic O Loughlin for O Hare, David Fitzgerald for Galvin.
Referee: Damien Fox (Clooney/Quin).
After the game former county board chairperson and lifelong Ballyea clubman Michael O Neill was invited by county chairman Joe Cooney to present the canon hamilton cup to Ballyea captain Stan Lineen. Christy Ryan representing Martin Donnelly presented the top score award to Tony Kelly as Joe Cooney presented the man of the match award to Niall Deasy.