Grassroots approach pays dividends for Ballyea
As principal, teacher and resident hurling guru in Ballyea National School, it was a regular occurrence for Eddie Liddy to be making a work-related call during his morning break when a horde of young hurlers would land outside his door.
"All they wanted was for you to come out with the whistle for some hurling, they lived for it" Liddy says. "We'd only a small little mucky patch of ground beside the river to hurl on, but they were so interested and determined since they were knee-high to a grasshopper."
Having coached seven of the current Ballyea senior team - who chase All-Ireland club SHC honours against Cuala in Croke Park tomorrow (3.0) - during their primary school years, and a further 10 panellists, he noticed there was "a special mark" about one particular group backboned by Jack Browne, Gearóid O'Connell and Niall Deasy.
Liddy coached them from baby infants onwards, and they were totally devoted to their craft from day one.
"We had a small rural school but when we played seven-a-side with that group we competed with the best, which was unheard of, and only the big schools could beat us when we went to 13 or 15-a-side," he says.
"They'd eat the ground for you and were very easy to manage because of the interest they had; they might forget their homework the next day but they'd never forget their hurley and it was almost like a full-time career on the road to matches.
"Parents would be changing shifts to bring car-loads of players to matches and families were totally devoted to hurling and their children. The lads would die for their team right from the word go and they all had their own hurleys made and would carry them everywhere."
Clare football captain Gary Brennan, who has excelled during Ballyea's remarkable run and scored the all-important goal against Thurles Sarsfields, is one of many players to sing the praises of Liddy for "first putting a hurl in my hand".
Men and women like Eddie Liddy the length and breadth of the country are the cornerstone of the GAA, the unsung heroes who give the game's elite the skills to dazzle under Croke Park's lights.
Liddy, part of Ballyea's U-21 management team for 2017, is still "pinching himself".
"This is still beyond our wildest dreams, and the satisfaction that you see in other people's faces, never mind your own, is great," he says. "I can't use enough superlatives to describe the lads and what they've done for the people of Ballyea, we never thought we'd see days like this."
One of the most notable aspects of their run has been the contributions of football stock, with the likes of Stan Lineen (Kilmihill), Pearse Lillis (Cooraclare) and Cathal Doohan (Lissycasey) all excelling in black and amber, but Ballyea is far from a divisional side as some would believe.
Despite hailing from west Clare, the aforementioned, as well as others like Martin O'Leary, David Egan and Damien Burke, have come all the way up through the underage grades with Ballyea and while they may often be on opposite sides on the football pitch against Clondegad (Ballyea's sister football club), they are a tight unit when it comes to hurling.
That mix of footballing fitness and hurling nous has served Ballyea well as they await their date with destiny.
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