Christy O'Connor: Sense of loyalty and locality powers Ballyboden machine
Published 12/02/2016 | 02:30
On the evening of the Leinster club football final in December, the Ballyboden St Enda's team bus pulled into the Spawell beside the M50, just off the roundabout which dissects the boundaries between the GAA clubs Ballyboden and St Jude's.
The squad waited there briefly before a Garda escort led them across the river Dodder and into the bosom of their own people at Firhouse Road.
A cavalcade of cars had followed the bus. People had lined the streets to applaud the victorious squad. A mass of people and kids swarmed the bus as soon as it entered the car park. Ballyboden is possibly the biggest GAA club in the country, incorporating some of the most densely populated areas of south Dublin, but that evening had the communal feel of a small village.
Winning a maiden Leinster title was a major breakthrough but Ballyboden is a superclub which always had its sights set on the biggest prizes. Any team which wins Dublin is always capable of taking Leinster but for most of the last decade, Ballyboden's Leinster club ambitions had rested with their hurlers.
During their crusade of winning six Dublin SHC titles in seven years, Ballyboden were perennial provincial contenders. After a one-point defeat to Birr in the 2007 Leinster final, most teams that beat Ballyboden over the following seasons - Ballyhale Shamrocks (twice), O'Loughlin Gaels, Coolderry, Mount Leinster Rangers - won Leinster and reached All-Ireland club finals.
Ballyboden have always been a strong dual club but Michael Darragh Macauley is their only big-name county footballer. Declan O'Mahoney and Darragh Nelson have been part of Dublin senior panels but this side is packed with, or at least was, current and former Dublin hurlers: Stephen Hiney, Conal Keaney, Shane Durkin, Simon Lambert, Conor McCormack, 'Dotsy' O'Callaghan and Conor Dooley.
O'Callaghan and Dooley will line out with the Dublin hurlers tomorrow evening, less than an hour after Ballyboden's All-Ireland semi-final against Clonmel has thrown in.
O'Callaghan was spending some time in the US, but he and Lambert left the football squad after the county final win in October to concentrate on the Dublin hurlers and their 'Super 11s' trip to Boston. Dooley also played in that hurling match, a week after deputising for goalkeeper Paul Durkin in Ballyboden's Leinster quarter-final win against St Patrick's. Lambert has since returned to the Ballyboden football squad.
Manager Andy McEntee was always open to welcoming the hurlers back when they were available because he, and everyone else in the squad, fully appreciated their importance to Ballyboden's pursuit of football glory. McEntee never relented in trying to get them back on board but if the hurlers had reached a county final (Cuala beat them in a quarter-final), it's unlikely the footballers would have reached this level. Conal Keaney hadn't even planned to play football last year. He only decided to fully commit the Wednesday night before Ballyboden played Kilmacud in the championship.
"Obviously our focus was big on the hurling this year," said Keaney in 2015. "We wanted to really put a stamp on it but when we were beaten, we just regrouped and said, 'What else are we going to do?' So we said, 'Let's just go and play football, the whole lot of us'. That's what we did."
When Ballyboden were chasing Leinster hurling titles, they often put too much pressure on themselves to get the job done. With so many hurlers on board, that experience on the hard road stood to the footballers in so many tight matches. With less expectation always surrounding the footballers compared to the hurlers, that extra freedom was evident in their march to the Leinster title. They also had the luck that the hurlers never seemed able to find.
Their modern hurling identity has deprived the footballers of the same status and profile of a St Vincent's but this is still a serious outfit. Any team which wins Dublin now has to be, with nine of the last 13 Leinster titles secured by Dublin clubs. Their current run hasn't come from nowhere either; Ballyboden lost Dublin semi-finals to Vincent's in 2013 and 2014, who went on to win Leinster titles in those years.
That 2014 county semi-final was Vincent's toughest match that season before losing the All-Ireland club semi-final to Corofin last February. After whacking Vincent's in a league game in March, Ballyboden confirmed their potential when turning over the champions in the county final six months later.
It was just Ballyboden's third county SFC title, the previous two coming in 1995 and 2009. After the hurlers finally made their breakthrough in 2007, winning the SHC for the first time, their march to winning five in a row cemented their status and identity as a hurling force but football always remained strong in the club. Cracking the code was tough in the face of such intense competition but when a new generation of young football talent started winning underage Dublin titles again, it gave the senior team a whole new impetus. Eight of the current panel are U-21.
Ballyboden are unique in that they are the only club in the country to have won senior county titles in hurling, football, camogie and ladies football. They field around 100 teams in all four codes. Their catchment area stretches across a number of different parishes, from Ballyboden, Knocklyon, Rathfarnham, Ballyroan, Firhouse, extending as far as the Dublin Mountains, where the club now has more pitches, and more new housing estates to draw from, in Ballycullen.
Yet despite its huge size, Ballyboden has always retained a deep sense of locality and loyalty. "You talk to some people and they don't see us as a real GAA club," said corner-forward Andrew Kerin. "But the support we've got around the whole area, all the local pubs and shops have stuff up, so it's just as relevant for the area as is it is for a small town down the country. Drive around on a Saturday morning, at the academy, the amount of people involved, it's a huge operation."
Their numbers are so vast that their academy stretches across three different centres: Ballyboden, Ballycullen and St Enda's Park in Rathfarnham. On a Saturday morning, those venues cater for up to 300 kids. At U-8 level, their numbers often stretch from between 100-150 kids. Kilmacud Crokes are the only club with comparable numbers at hurling and football. A couple of years ago, Ballyboden had four minor teams competing in football.
They have had outside players - Paul Durkin from Donegal was a huge addition in 2015 - but one of Ballyboden's greatest strengths has always been their ability to foster a remarkable spirit - in both codes, with so many dual players - from such a huge playing base.
When the hurlers reached their second county final in 1988, 14 of the players were 'outsiders'. Most were country people putting down roots in south Dublin, many of which played a huge part in transforming the club into the superpower it has become, driven on now by waves of talented first- and second-generation Ballyboden players.
Some of those players' parents would have had no GAA background but the club became such a huge community focus in such a densely populated area that it attracted people from a diverse range of backgrounds, many of which had a wide range of skills to offer. Different backgrounds also gave the club a fresh perspective on moving forward.
And the machine is powering forward now faster, stronger and better than ever.