Final rivals creating their own history
Two very different clubs have good reason to smile as they contest today's Munster decider
In 1976, Glen Rovers won the county championship for the 24th time, conquering Blackrock who were not only city rivals, but also reigning county and provincial champions. Defeat to Blackrock in the previous year's final sweetened the experience. Their success, in the club's 60th year in existence, catapulted them to Munster and All-Ireland titles in the months that followed.
Heady days. Christy Ring was just coming into his teens around then and his father, a hero of Cork and the Glen, was still a vibrant presence, being a selector with the county senior team that won the first of three consecutive All-Irelands the same year. As a team selector, he also helped steer Glen Rovers to their county title win.
Christy junior went on to play for the club, and the county at under 21 level, and in 1989 he was on the Glen Rovers team that won the county championship again, their first in 13 years, and their last until the 26-year wait for another ended in 2015. Now a club delegate to the county board, he has seen the two days, but his passion for the club remains undimmed, and his faith never wavered.
On their lean spells he is philosophical, and feels that some of the concern over the club's future was alarmist, though they did encounter serious financial hardship when heavy investment in the last ten years left them with huge repayment debts. "They weren't winning senior counties," Ring admits, "but they were winning minor and under 21 counties. We were in senior semi-finals. We always knew we would come through at some time. I suppose you can't keep it going. The greatest clubs in the world have their low points too."
When he played in '89 the Glen had Tomás Mulcahy as captain and John Fitzgibbon as a goalscoring predator. They defeated Sarsfields in the final, having suffered a loss in the previous year's final to St Finbarr's. Ring, like Mulcahy, played in three finals, winning one. Then the light began to fade.
"I suppose we would be known as a team that played traditional hurling," Ring says, "with spirit anyway, that is what was there when we grew up. That still holds true. I would say forwards have been scarce in the lean years. I think that was a problem; in the late '70s forwards became scarce. The spirit was always there but you need that bit of class to give you extra."
The Glen is 100 years old, and the black hoop on their jersey is in recognition of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising. Their first senior hurling title arrived in 1934, leading to a remarkable and unmatched eight-in-a-row. The same year they won their first county title, Ballyea was founded.
The two clubs who face each other in today's Munster final could not be more apart in terms of tradition. Ballyea's first county title only arrived this year and they have featured in just one senior final previously. But they have already eliminated a traditional heavyweight in Thurles Sarsfields and show a spirit of their own of which the Cork champions are well aware.
In 1976, while the Glen were at the summit in Cork and Munster, a household name, Ballyea were unheard of beyond Clare and attracting little notice within their own county. But they did not go empty-handed: they won the Junior 'B' league and championship double, defeating Sixmilebridge in both finals. Clare hurling was making some strides, reaching the first of three successive National League finals and Sixmilebridge and Newmarket-on-Fergus, in particular, were to the forefront of senior club hurling.
Michael O'Neill, a former Ballyea player, and club chairman for 15 years before he became chair of Clare County Board, was on the 1976 team. "We had no field of our own and we were living in the shadow of Clarecastle, the senior team in the same parish. At different times Ballyea players could play senior with Clarecastle and then go back and play junior with Ballyea but I don't think it applied that year.
"It was a rural junior club I suppose, of its time. We didn't have the same contribution from the schools, and in the '80s the teachers in the national school in Ballyea started to really weigh in. There was always a wish that you would go on and win the junior 'A' which we did in 1982, then we went on and won junior 'A' again in '91 to go up to intermediate."
Later on, when they reached the 2003 senior county final, O'Neill was a team selector. "It was always my own personal ambition, and that of the people around me at the time, when chairman to have a senior club. We are not against Clarecastle or anything else. We just wanted to express ourselves at senior level." They were soundly beaten by Clarecastle in the 2003 final but the standard of juvenile hurling was rising all the time. It took another 13 years for the ultimate dream to materialise in winning a senior championship. For a long stretch of their history those aspirations were too surreal to contemplate.
"The important thing to acknowledge," says O'Neill, "are the people who formed it in 1934 and all those who have worked at it since, behind the scenes; those are the people who are the making of any parish or county win. Without those people who had the resolve to stay going, you won't make it. It wasn't always easy. It's a question of keeping at it, no matter what size you are."
Clare's success in the 1990s helped inspire a shift in the hurling demographic. New winners started to appear: 11 different winners in the last 16 years. Three were first-time winners, three others had won only once before, in one case not for almost 90 years. Ballyea surfed the same wave.
In stark contrast to Ballyea's one senior title, the Glen, having won 27 times, are only bettered in Cork by Blackrock. They hold three Munster titles and two All-Irelands and produced several leading county players from the past, most notably Ring and Jack Lynch, all the way up to their current star asset, Patrick Horgan. But Mulcahy is keen to stress that this is a new chapter being written and needs to be seen as such.
"To me the guys now have created their own identity," he says. "They have moved our club on to another level. Even (the manager) Richie Kelleher said he never saw them in a Munster final. I was 13 when they played South Liberties in the Munster final in '76. The guys now know what the history is but it doesn't seem to burden them. They have created their history.
"And Ballyea, I know they are coming from a small parish which reminds me of Newtownshandrum back when they were winning county, provincial and All-Ireland titles, I think people said there were only 800 people in Newtown and that is the beauty of the club championship; the guys expected to win don't always win."
Mulcahy had a spell as manager, with the current manager, Kelleher, and coach, Ian Lynam, on board, and they reached the 2008 county semi finals. But they had years when they were nearly caught up in a relegation play-off to preserve their senior championship status. Having witnessed those times, Mulcahy is enjoying the current success.
"You are probably feeling more excitement with your club than ever with a county team, you know it inside out, the hardship it has been through. Even the last day in Limerick against Patrickswell people said I got very excited watching them and I did. People said Cork teams were no longer having success in Munster, and this run is welcome because of that, but that didn't concern me at all; this was about Glen Rovers. They were no longer a team that performed one year and then disappeared for another 26 years. The younger lads in the club are slagging us that we were the one-in-row team (in 1989). Now there is consistency there."
Mulcahy was involved with the under 21 team in the club this year which reached the county semi-finals, and with the intermediates also getting to the penultimate stage, the future is looking bright. The challenges they've faced off the field in tackling debt that spiralled at one stage towards one million euro required a serious commitment which wasn't found wanting.
"There were days when we were asking would the club survive financially," says Mulcahy. "The club took on projects to develop the ground and when the property bubble burst we ran into difficulty. But there was a loan restructure and fundraising and the debt is now manageable."
What made the Glen's spirit unique, he's asked. "Even if we did not have the best group of hurlers, we had a heart of gold, there was fight in us, we would throw legs and bodies in where other lads wouldn't - that kind of thing. What I am talking about is that they would fight for everything. That was the sort they had. I would include myself in that, I wasn't the best hurler, but when it came down to it you gave your heart and soul to the club."
They let a good lead slip in the 2010 county final against Sarsfields, their first appearance since losing to Midleton in 1991, and were hammered by Sarsfields in their next final in 2014. But they returned to win the following two, defeating Sarsfields in the first.
"Everyone was on about what was happening to Glen Rovers, it was a difficult time," says Mulcahy of their drought. But the demographic, as it did in Clare, shifted and all the traditional big city clubs suffered periods of austerity. Through various twists of fate, today's final brings together one famous name and one which people are still getting to know. As with all clubs, what went on in the past always matters. For now though all sights are on the road ahead.
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