Ballygunner can't change history but future is in their hands
Jimmy McGinn was born in Dundalk in 1916. Having received his formal primary and secondary education in the town, he trained to be a teacher in St Patrick's College, qualifying in 1935 before accepting a position in Scoil Eoin, Waterford and later Ballygunner.
Ballygunner was sparsely populated; a rural parish of 12 houses. McGinn had left his home town in Louth as a young man immersed in soccer but in the south-east he understood how important hurling was to the area so he learned how the game should be played.
Like the teacher he was, he passed that knowledge on to the schoolkids, showed them the arts of pulling, doubling in the air, blocking, hooking, cutting, protecting, catching. He encouraged them to bring hurls to school but with money so scarce, they mostly used sticks. And with sticks that were not capable of lifting the ball, ground hurling became a speciality.
All through those early years of his tenure, hurling was a fixture on the curriculum, something that is sadly lacking in primary schools today. At 8.30 each morning, there were 30 minutes of play before lessons and at lunchtime they converged again for another 45 minutes of hurling.
Gradually, a local club was formed, fields were set aside for games and challenges against Mount Sion.
"Jimmy was the man who started it all here," says current chairman Gerry Cullinan. "He set the scene for what was to come."
And what came was beautiful. Not a year old, Ballygunner made the most auspicious of starts by winning the Waterford minor championship. Since then success has flowed steadily - Munster Club of Year in 2001, Waterford Club of the Year in 1992, '96, '97, 2001 and 2005 and the AIB Club Of the Year in 2003.
For an outfit still so young, they have won 13 senior county championships, an intermediate, under 21 titles in 1988, '89 and 2004 and minor titles from 1954, '92, 2002, 2006 and 2007.
Since 2001 they've landed the Waterford title six times, the latest one without the injured Pauric Mahony, a colossal loss to both club and county.
To compound that misery, his brother Philip is out of today's Munster final against Na Piarsaigh through suspension. This adds to earlier blows, losing Wayne Hutchinson, who transferred to Dublin's St Jude's; Alan Kirwan, a stalwart since 2001, who retired; Stephen O'Keeffe, who was a regular on the WIT team for the past few years; while Dessie Hutchinson has moved to Brighton FC and Jack O'Donoghue, many people's choice for Waterford full-back, is trying to crack Munster rugby.
"All huge losses for us," admits Cullinan. "Initially the current players felt they owed it to Pauric to make a major effort to go as far this year without him. But when we won the county title Denis Walsh told them we could go even further." Today, they find out just how far.
Na Piarsaigh are aiming for a third provincial title having won the 2011 and 2013 finals. They go in as favourites today.
Pauric Mahony's loss cannot be overstated. He had assumed a real leadership role, scoring 1-90 for Waterford during the league. Now, however, he hopes a win today could see him fit enough to play in the All-Ireland series. He was only nine when Ballygunner beat Cork's Blackrock to win their only provincial title in 2001. It rankles that a club with so much quality over the years hasn't broken through again. A win this afternoon and his dream of playing a part in the campaign could stay alive.
"Every third day I'd be doing runs in the field now," he says. "It takes a couple of days to recover then after the run. Then maybe two days on, a day off in the gym doing leg exercises - cycling, swimming, that kind of stuff. It's tough going but I think the worst of it is well gone at this stage, so I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
"It's tough looking on from the outside, very tough when it's your club. It's different with inter-county because you are only ever really one or two games away from a Munster final. But at club level it is a long road to get to a Munster final.
"You're growing up with these lads all of your life and they are going out on the field on Sunday but you can't help, I suppose. That's very tough but I suppose at this stage I have been out for a couple of months and missed a lot of hard games so I suppose I'm probably used to it at this stage."
It will be a tough day for the Mahony clan as Pauric's older brother Philip will also sit out today's final after being sent off in their semi-final victory against Glen Rovers. Yet, they'll have a role to play. Their manager, ex-Cork corner-back and former Waterford football manager Denis Walsh, leaves the final few minutes to his players before they take the field so it's likely the brothers will be rallying the troops.
"Look, we can't change the record books but the spirit is certainly there," says Cullinan. "We've had tough days. If you go back to 2013 we had the county final won against Passage but they came from seven points down and won it. It was imperative to win it in 2014 and we did.
"As regards the past Munster finals, well losing the first in 1996 against Wolfe Tones was most unfortunate. We conceded goals in the first half, were 13 points down and only lost by a point in the end. Going over some of the other three, St Joseph's were better than us and the two final losses to Newtownshandrum, well we were very close, but they were marginally better than us too."
Pauric Mahony is aware of the need to add more silverware to their vast promise.
"There's something hanging over the present team, that we have to win one to prove ourselves to be as good as that team in 2001," admitted Mahony. "Most of the lads have four county medals since this group began. If you look at the average age of the team, it's young still. We've only one player 30, one at 27 and then the rest are 26 or younger, so we've a very young team and there's been a lot of success there for that. But we know it's time to step up now and aim for the bigger prizes."
They won't have it easy this afternoon against a team yet to lose a single match in the province.
"We're outsiders but we're lucky too," Cullinan reasons. "Waterford went through recession and endured worse times than most but the city expanded out towards us and gave us a good hinterland to recruit players from. So many of our team are living or working away, Ian Kenny, for example, is over and back from Germany but is having a great year. His effort is driving on the team, same for the absence of the Mahonys."
They've had their challenges but the spirit is alive and well, just like it was when Jimmy McGinn came to town all those years ago.
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