Wednesday 25 April 2018

Ballyea withstand second half comeback from St Thomas' to reach All-Ireland hurling decider

Ballyea 1-19 St Thomas’ 2-14

Tony Kelly of Ballyea celebrates with team mates after the AIB GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Club Championship Semi-Final match between St Thomas' and Ballyea at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Tony Kelly of Ballyea celebrates with team mates after the AIB GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Club Championship Semi-Final match between St Thomas' and Ballyea at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Ballyea held off an incredible late comeback attempt from St Thomas’ to reach their first All-Ireland club hurling final, the last whistle met with overwhelming relief.

Having led by 13 points at one stage in the second half, they almost collapsed under the weight of a spirited recovery in the final ten minutes that saw the Galway county champions reduce the deficit to a point with an injury-time goal from sub Anthony Kelly. But Tony Kelly ensured a Ballyea win with the last score in the final seconds.

St Thomas’ hadn’t played a competitive match since winning their county final against Gort last October, the same day that yesterday’s opponents drew the county final in Clare. They were down this path four years ago, when going on to win the All-Ireland, but that kind of vacuum left doubts about their readiness for last night’s demands at Thurles. It showed in a rusty performance for most of the game.

While St Thomas’ waited for this date, Ballyea went on a fairy-tale run that saw them win the county final replay, a first ever Clare title, and then defeat Thurles Sarsfields and Glen Rovers to add the Munster crown.

Last night, they were thankful for a huge contribution from Niall Deasy, who was flawless from placed balls and finished with 1-11, with 1-2 from play. His goal in the 41st minute looked to have ended the game as a contest, pushing Ballyea 12 points in front.

They couldn’t have expected the tension that was to wait them, but they held on to take the prize of a trip to Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, March 17, where the hurlers of Cuala or Slaughtneil will be waiting.

Ballyea laid down firm foundations in the first half and carried a 0-10 to 0-3 lead into the interval after dominating play and punishing St Thomas’ indiscipline. Six of those scores came from Deasy frees, with Tony Kelly setting up Deasy for another from play when his quickly-taken free found the half-forward unmarked and the opposition momentarily asleep. The hurling never reached top gear, with St Thomas’ particularly sluggish, and scoring only twice from play.

Conor Cooney was off colour with frees and from play, hitting a deflating sequence of wides, accounting for the first three and last two of his side’s eight in the first half. By the close, Darragh Burke had assumed the responsibility, succeeding from a 65 just before the interval, their first score for 15 minutes. In injury-time, Deasy restored Ballyea’s seven-point lead. They survived a minor scare, when Sean Skehill and Brendan Farrell almost hatched a goal under a dropping ball near half-time, but it would have been undeserved.

Among the few highlights of the first half were two excellent points from play from Ballyea wing-back Gearoid Considine. Tony Kelly dashed about without scoring, one effort going narrowly wide, but David Burke failed to sparkle in the St Thomas midfield. 

Burke’s third point, a free, gave St Thomas the perfect start to the second half, but Kelly responded with his first and more careless fouling allowed Deasy add to his tally. The gap moved out the eight points for the first time. In the 39th minute, a shot to nothing from Sean Skehill blazed narrowly wide, but Ballyea’s response was lethal. Pat Joe Connolly pointed and then a lovely move had Stan Lineen pick out Deasy, who powered past his marker and finished to the net after 41 minutes, leaving the Clare side 1-14 to 0-5 ahead.

St Thomas’ had Cooney paying full-forward after the break, but a series of high balls achieved nothing, the Ballyea defence watertight with Joe Neylon outstanding. Coney’s goal from a free with 14 minutes still only brought St Thomas’ to within ten points of Ballyea.  

St Thomas did have a kick. They hit six points in a row to narrow the lead to five points and for the first time, Ballyea felt real pressure. They seemed to have steadied themselves again, leading by four entering stoppage time. Then came the second goal and for a while their hearts took a pasting. 

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 Cooney 1-0 (f); A Kelly 1-0, K Burke 0-2, J Regan, S Cooney, D Cooney, 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).

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