Driven by the Déise dream
Dermot Crowe talks to Gary Hurney, an unsung hero of Waterford football, ahead of Ballinacourty's biggest day
IN injury time in the Waterford county football final Gary Hurney hauled his large frame back to his own full-back line to defend Ballinacourty's goal lead against Ardmore.
The final whistle was near but all it took was a second to unravel everything and Hurney had to make one vital intervention. Reaching into the air he collected the ball one-handed and cleared to safety. Twenty six years waiting for a county title were at an end.
A dozen of the Ballinacourty players had featured in the county hurling semi-final with Abbeyside a month before when Ballyduff Upper won with a goal from a 20-metre free three minutes into added time. Abbeyside could have wrapped it up in the minutes that preceded it, Hurney himself missing one scoring chance, and then the debt was settled without an ounce of compassion.
Hurling is still the glamour game in Waterford and to come so close to reaching the county final for the first time since 1969 was heartbreaking. There wasn't much time to mope though; they'd a week to raise their spirits for a quarter-final meeting with Clashmore in the senior football championship. Hurney thinks they weren't right mentally by the weekend, and he says the pain of the hurling loss is still felt in the club. But they soldiered through a stiff challenge and reached the semi-finals to face the champions, The Nire.
Many people across the country will be familiar with The Nire, and their predecessors Stradbally, who both came close to winning Munster titles in two of the last three seasons. But not many will ever have heard of Ballinacourty. Hurney has been there most of his life, having been born in Moycullen in Galway from where his father Pakie, the team manager, hails.
Ballinacourty had lost five of the last seven semi-finals but they beat The Nire by a goal and in the last moments of the county final against Ardmore, seeking their first win since 1981, it was unthinkable that they would throw it away.
For Hurney, and the years he has put in, having a father as manager and three brothers in the team, the prospects of losing were unimaginable. The late goal that helped them see off Ardmore was finished by his brother Patrick, and the move leading up to it saw the ball handled by all four brothers in sequence. They aren't the only family chipping in. There are Enright, Foley and Fives brothers involved too, but they have the biggest stake.
Though only 27, Hurney has been a Waterford county player for nine seasons, taking one year out to travel to Australia. Living and working in Dublin for the last couple of years, he reckons he has been in Waterford on club or county duty for all but five weekends of the year. There hasn't been much to crow about, naturally.
"It's not an easy thing to be," he says of life as a Waterford county footballer. "You're involved within a hurling county, but if I walked away from it and two or three other lads walked away from it, sure what good would it be? You can't just turn your back on it. There are a lot of committed football people out there. And plus my family drive me to play. And playing for the county has benefited our club."
He is one of Waterford's bestknown footballers and last year was their sole representative on a Munster all-stars selection, while more recently he was part of the Railway Cup squad at Croke Park. His first introduction to the Munster senior football championship was at 17, while still in secondary school, marked by Anthony Lynch. A rude awakening to the gap that existed between Waterford and the province's big two.
But Waterford began to show some promise and while a minor he drew with Kerry in the championship and beat them at Under-21. There have been enough crumbs to feed his appetite for more. "Over the last few years it's become very professional, players have been very committed; everyone is there for the cause. Last year our main objective was to beat Clare and to end that 19-year drought that was hanging over our heads. It was like our All-Ireland final to be honest. There is this thing that starts to sneak in where you feel you're not supposed to win. Unfortunately against Kerry, (this year) we underachieved an awful lot. There's a better performance in us than you got."
Club football in Waterford is highly competitive, he maintains, and estimates that next year any one of five or six contenders could win the competition. Following their hurling disappointment, it has been a life-saver but the football isn't regarded by him as the poor relation. His brother John won a Munster Championship medal with Waterford senior hurlers in 2004.
"Ah not to me now, personally, no definitely not. I'm a football man all the way, I couldn't say that. Being honest, they'd be equal in my eyes. I'm very happy with what I've got, a senior football medal.
"Beating Ardmore, at the moment it's the best medal in the box. It's the most important one. Your own club championship is probably one of the toughest. Everybody knows everybody. It's like the team you're playing, they know everything about you, but going down to Kilcummin (in the Munster semi-final) they didn't. We didn't know what to expect so maybe it was a chance for certain guys to go out and express themselves. We had a chat before to go out and play the best football you can. We put up a good performance."
They'll need that and more to beat Nemo Rangers. Ballinacourty didn't ring any bells with the lads Hurney trains with in Dublin during the week, a medley of players from different counties still attached to clubs down the country. They're aware of it now but Nemo have won 13 Munster finals and present a huge challenge. "You've got to give Nemo the ultimate respect," says Hurney. "Niall Geary, their captain this year, is a former Waterford player. I played alongside him for two years when I started off. A good player and I can see the commitment he has put into the last few years. It's like David versus Goliath. It's in our hands now. We're looking forward to it."
But he's not surprised to be here. "No, I don't think so. We rate club football in Waterford highly, there are great teams. And if you can win that championship you are as good as any team in Munster. Nemo have 13 Munster titles, their record speaks for itself. We've one county championship in 26 years. I'm not surprised, just delighted to be here and have this opportunity."
Ballinacourty have won the Waterford championship four times, their first in 1978, and in recent years have been a major achiever at underage grades. Having won four out of the last five Under-21 football championships, a senior breakthrough seemed only a matter of time.
Of the team that started against Kilcummin, ten were Under-21s. Many are due to feature for Abbeyside in the county Under-21 hurling final against De la Salle on December 22. Gary Hurney won't be part of that expedition but he'll probably be there on the sidelines roaring them on. Right now, though, there is only one game on the horizon.