Sunday 24 February 2019

O'Sullivan hoping that family bonds can drive 'Gunner boys to new glory


O’Sullivan: Lifting the Cup after Ballygunner’s previous Munster club success in 2001. Photo: Sportsfile
O’Sullivan: Lifting the Cup after Ballygunner’s previous Munster club success in 2001. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Billy O'Sullivan was 33 years old and feeling every day of it the last and only other time Ballygunner tried to climb this mountain.

So the human thing has been to reminisce this week. To retrace an opportunity that maybe just came too late, slipping through their fingers against a smart Clarinbridge team captained by current Galway manager Micheál Donoghue.

Because everything about Ballygunner today carries the fingerprints of their past. Billy talks us through the tangled web of family, mentioning a picture on the mantelpiece at home of him and his three sons - Barry, Billy Jnr and Conor, posing proudly with the O'Neill Cup (Munster Club) in 2001. Just children then.

All three are on the senior panel now - as is Billy's youngest brother, Shane. His three nephews are there too, the Mahony boys, Paraic, Philip and Mikey. There's Tadhg Foley, another nephew. He mentions how his own father, Pat, was a founding member of the club.

In other words, Pat and wife, Lilian, have a son and seven grandsons central to this odyssey now.

Then there's the three other O'Sullivan boys- Tadhg's sons (no relation). The three O'Keeffe boys too.

Maybe when people think of Ballygunner these days, they think of a big, urban club on the sprawling edge of Waterford city. But Billy sees something different.

When he was a child in Ballygunner National School, there were 12 boys and three girls in his class. Ten of those boys would be on the '92 team that won Ballygunner's first senior county title in almost a quarter of a century. And nine years later, he remembers bringing that O'Neill Cup back to the school.

Tadhg's two eldest boys, Brian and David, would have been there. So too Paraic and Philip Mahony, Stephen O'Keeffe and Barry Coughlan. The visit instilled something in that group, something that still survives.

"We have that small-village unity," Billy says emphatically now.

He recognises they'll need it today in Thurles too, knowing what's coming their way. Because no club espouses that intimacy better than Ballyhale Shamrocks, now nine-time Leinster champions and chasing an extraordinary seventh All-Ireland crown.

With Henry Shefflin at the helm, there's been an almost seamless fusing of household names like TJ Reid, Michael and Colin Fennelly and Joey Holden with the young bucks who have just delivered back-to-back U-21 Kilkenny titles.

Funny, O'Sullivan heard some people express at Ballyhale winning their 16th senior county title last year and it just made him smile. "Sure Jesus, Mary and Joseph....when you look at what they have," he says, laughing.

Captain in '01, he sees comparisons in Ballygunner today and the team of 18 years back, specifically how so many setbacks infused both groups with a defiant character. But he recognises a fundamental difference too.

Of winning the Munster title in '01, he recalls, "It was a massive thing for Waterford hurling at the time and it almost felt like an end. So we didn't know how to handle it. I remember we went training one evening and a couple of lads were missing, gone off to the official opening of a shop or something. Fellas who weren't used to the limelight were celebrities in GAA circles now.

"But we had other challenges too. The age demographic was one. We had a fair few lads around my age, so we probably didn't have the legs to win the All-Ireland. I mean there'd have been a view in Waterford before that county championship that we might even have been over the hill.

"Then we didn't have a pitch to train on at the time. The weather was bad after Christmas and we actually couldn't get a challenge match, couldn't train, couldn't get a pitch. Even trying to manage the time was a problem. We won the Munster Club (against Blackrock) at the beginning of December, the All-Ireland semi-final was on February 17.

"We had no experience of this before. Whether to train or not to train. Now it's completely different."

Fergal Hartley was centre-back then and is manager today. From the outset, his priorities this season always seemed calibrated higher than securing the Waterford five-in-a-row. He spoke of "a crusade" and O'Sullivan understood precisely what his old team-mate was communicating.

At the start of '01, the Ballygunner players were challenged by manager Gordon Ryan to leave a legacy for future generations. Hartley, it's clear, seeks precisely the same thing today.

Last year's was the club's 10th Munster final and only their second win. It felt like a box that needed ticking.

"It would have been an absolute travesty if this team didn't achieve at least one Munster title," says O'Sullivan now.

"I mean I know exactly how they were starting to feel. For all the county championships I won, it would have stuck in my throat if I ended up sitting down at the fire, an old man thinking, 'I should have won a Munster Club!'

"But now the All-Ireland is in front of them and these things don't come around too often. We all know what Ballyhale can do. But in life you get opportunities that you have to go after. There's a great juvenile set-up in Ballygunner now, so it's never the end.

"But it's still a long road back for any team to get this far. Who knows what the future holds? I just hope that they go out and hurl with abandon now, do themselves justice."

Irish Independent

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