Ballina’s Willie Connors gets away from Mount Sion’s Stephen Roche. PHOTO: ODHRAN DUCIE

O'Brien cleared to play for Ballina in Munster Junior Football final



Saturday 15th January

Throw-in @ 1.30pm (E.T.)

Referee: John Ryan (Cork)

By Thomas Conway

Some see January football as a joyless enterprise, but for either Ballina or Gneeveguilla, next Saturday afternoon could bring untold elation.

Whichever club comes out on top will be crowned Munster Junior football champions for the first time in the competition’s twenty-year history. That two-decade long history has been a story of Kerry dominance, with clubs from the Kingdom emerging as provincial champions on all but three occasions - their supremacy interrupted by Cork sides: Carbery Rangers in 2003, Canovee in 2007, and Knocknagree in 2017.

Whether Ballina can cause another interruption remains to be seen, but preparations haven’t been running smoothly in recent weeks. Like many clubs across the country, the Tipperary champions have been forced to grapple with the impact of Covid-19 cases and self-isolation rules, and while manager Kevin Byrne admits that Covid certainly created unwelcome complications, he feels his side have now emerged from the disruption.

“Our preparations have been somewhat disrupted,” he revealed.

“We had planned to have two challenge games over Christmas, but the opposition teams pulled out of both of them due to Covid cases and close contacts. We’ve also had a few cases ourselves, and one or two people have been side-lined for being close contacts as well. But I suppose that has been the case for everybody trying to prepare a team over the Christmas period, and thankfully we seem to be coming out the other end of it now.”

Balanced and capable

While Gneeveguilla resemble a balanced and capable all-round side, Kerry senior panellist Pa Warren is likely to lead their charge from the half-back line. The wing-back made his Kerry debut on January 5th, with Jack O’Connor selecting him for the McGrath Cup fixture - a 2-23 to 0-6 annihilation of Limerick in Tralee.

Ballina, however, are focusing on their own game. Ball retention will prove vital, and possibly determine the outcome of this Munster Final. Some in the Ballina club may still feel haunted by the memory of their last trip to Mallow - the 2013 Munster Intermediate Hurling Final, which the Tipp club defeated by Cork champions Youghal. Kevin himself was at that game, and while he knows its memory will feel uncomfortable to some Ballina supporters, it won’t affect his players.

“The last time I was in Mallow was to watch the Ballina intermediate hurlers in the Munster Final back in 2013, but it’s a perfect venue, the pitch is always very good,” he said.

“Playing football at this time of year, possession becomes even more important. The message we’ll give to our players is that you have to mind the ball, you have to retain possession. It’s not the time to try risky, long cross-field passes, because the more you retain possession, the easier you make things for yourself.”

Just as the Christmas lights were disappearing from the Ballina streets, the place began to exhibit a new type of decor, with placards and banners emerging in support of the junior footballers. Byrne is effusive in his praise of the wider Ballina club and community, all of whom have come together in support of his team.

There should be a febrile atmosphere in Mallow next Saturday, and part of the challenge facing Ballina will rest in detaching themselves from that emotion. Some of the more experienced players - the likes of Steven O’Brien, Michael Breen, and Willie Connors (unfortunately now ruled out through injury) have experienced the adrenaline of Croke Park on All-Ireland Final day. They’ll know how to channel that emotional energy into their performance and will guide the younger players in this respect. Energy, adrenaline, emotion. All dangerous things. If balanced correctly however, they can work as the perfect recipe for success.