Ballyea hold on for final spot after comeback scare
Ballyea 1-19 St Thomas' 2-14
St Thomas' spent much of this match slipping further and further adrift until such time that you almost forgot they were part of the proceedings. Not having hurled a competitive match since beating Gort in the county final last October, the 2013 All-Ireland club champions trailed by 13 points at the three-quarter stage. They looked rusty, and doomed. But there followed a remarkable comeback that almost wrecked Ballyea's fairytale season.
Conor Cooney, mainly ineffective and moved to full forward for the second half in the hope of getting some goals, hit the net from a free, struck with tremendous force, with 14 minutes to go. But Ballyea, still 10 points to the good, reacted as if it were no more than a scratch. They responded with two more points from the outstanding Niall Deasy, who ended the day with a major haul of 1-11, 1-2 from play. What could possibly go wrong?
But, gradually at first, in a kind of creeping manner, St Thomas' began to work their way back. Approaching the 50th minute Darragh Burke scored the first of seven points without reply, bringing play up to the 56th minute and giving the game a much changed complexion. Still, the lead remained at five and when Cathal Doohan sent over one of the scores of the match from out on the sideline Ballyea appeared to have weathered the storm.
Not quite. Burke, who had taken over their free-taking duties from an off-colour Cooney, nailed two more points and a team that couldn't score for most of the game - managing a meagre three points in the first half - were now scoring for fun. Ballyea were in a panic, even more so in stoppage time when the gap was whittled down to a point with St Thomas' second goal. Kevin Sheehan batted the first effort and substitute Anthony Kelly put away the rebound. One more point would have taken it to extra time, and only a fool would have backed against St Thomas' with that kind of momentum.
In the second of two added minutes Tony Kelly, not for the first time, answered his team's cry for help with his third from play, a delightful score giving them a bit more breathing space. The final whistle soon followed.
Come the final on March 17, where they will meet Cuala or Slaughtneil, Ballyea may reflect on this heart-stopping finish as being the making of them. Their survival may be interpreted as a mark of character but they won't be so deluded as to fail to realise that the end could have seen them finish broken men.
St Thomas' will mourn their slow start. David Burke never gave the performance his reputation called for. Cooney was subdued too, missing a string of frees in the first half, hitting wides from open play and dead balls - five in all before Darragh Burke took over, the centre back playing a fine match and doing his damnedest to spark some passion.
Joe Neylon and Gearoid O'Connell were exceptional in the Ballyea backline, with O'Connell scoring two glorious first-half points. By the interval they already looked in an excellent position, leading 0-10 to 0-4. Deasy's goal after a well-worked move in the 41st minute appeared to bring the curtains down on the game as a contest, but if ever the old line about 'no lead being enough' in hurling applied, it was here.
Scorers: Ballyea - N Deasy 1-11 (0-9 fs); T Kelly 0-3; G O'Connell 0-2, PJ Connolly 0-2; C Doohan 0-1. St Thomas' - Darragh Burke 0-8 (0-5 fs, 0-2 65s); C Rooney 1-0 (f); A Kelly 1-0, K Burke 0-2, D Cooney, S Cooney, J Regan, E Burke 0-1.
Ballyea: K Sheehan; J Neylon, J Browne, B Carrig; G O'Connell, P Flanagan, J Murphy; T Kelly, S Lineen; PJ Connolly, N Deasy, C Doohan; PJ Connolly, P Lillis, G Brennan, D Burke. Subs: M O'Leary for Burke (32 mins).
St Thomas': P Skehill; F Burke, C Burke, E Burke; D Cooney, S Cooney, J Regan; David Burke, B Burke; C Cooney, Darragh Burke, D Sherry; B Farrell, S Skehill, K Burke.
Subs: A Kelly for Sherry (inj 22 mins); M Caulfield for Farrell (44).
Referee: S Cleere (Kilkenny).
Sunday Indo Sport