Changing seasons – from All-Ireland club final goalkeeper to Clare county final manager

JOURNEYS THROUGH THE Clare hurling landscape.

Kevin Sheehan has been through a few and can appreciate the varying directions they can take.

He can remember the days when Ballyea toiled away in the junior club hurling ranks in the 90s, battling for recognition.

He ploughed away as they climbed up over the next decade or so, in the midst of the outfield battles for the club on the outskirts of Ennis, but at the outset of the 2016 season he was not giving much thought to be a key cog in the Ballyea machine.

Sheehan did not envisage reinventing himself as a goalkeeper who would help the club win their maiden Clare senior hurling title in last October that year or triumph on the Munster stage in Semple Stadium that November.

It wasn’t mapped out for him to be back at the Thurles venue in February 2017 for an All-Ireland semi-final or to grace Croke Park for a St Patrick’s Day decider when Ballyea’s wondrous journey just came up short at the final hurdle.

And it wasn’t forecast then that he’d be getting set now in mid-October to manage his club tomorrow afternoon on the showpiece day of Clare hurling, in their quest for supremacy against Cratloe and the pursuit of the Canon Hamilton Cup. 

First up the tale of how he ended up between the posts.

“It wasn’t overly planned. I’d have played all my career out the pitch and I’d a fairly serious back injury and drifted away for a year. At the time Shane O’Neill would have transferred down to Clonmel with work and left a gap in goal and Barry Coote would have been quite young to fill the gap.

“I played a junior game or two in goals and they were stuck and out of the blue, the senior manager thought a bit more experience around the goal would have helped. I took the chance and it worked out the best.”

Kevin Sheehan was in goal when Ballyea won the 2016 Clare county title against Clonlara.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

That phrase undersells the magnitude of the campaign that Ballyea embarked on after claiming that county crown in 2016.

“It’s hard to even believe it still. We went into such a battle with Clonlara over the two games in the county final. The other evening I just sat down and threw on the first half of the drawn game, the tackling in that was something you’d more associate with All-Ireland final day than club championship, it was just relentless.

“Once we got over Clonlara, we wouldn’t have even told you where we were going next. We didn’t train until the Wednesday night, we’d a good session, maybe 100 minutes long and during it lads started to get cranky, the bite came back into it. Maybe you felt then you wouldn’t be a million miles off Thurles.”

Moments burst forth in his recollections. Gary Brennan cutting through the Thurles Sarsfields defence for that magical Munster semi-final goal.

The splendour of their first-half play when they took down Glen Rovers in the provincial final. Facing off against St Thomas, a former national powerhouse, and streaking clear in the first half before digging in at the finish as they booked a 17 March date for themselves.

Tony Kelly and Paul Flanagan celebrate Ballyea’s 2017 club semi-final victory over St Thomas.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“Against Cuala, we thought we had everything right but they just seemed to be a different step up and physicality on the day. We just weren’t really able to get to grips with them.

“While you could look back at little things over the course of the hour, I think we were well beaten.”

The hangover from that loss lingered throughout 2017 and the exertions of a marathon campaign sapped their energy base. They relinquished their county title at the quarter-final stage against Newmarket-on-Fergus.

By then Sheehan was mindful of handing on the club’s number one jersey.

“I was still kind of anxious with Barry’s age profile compared to mine, it would have been important not to stagnate in the position. You could lose Barry at 23 or 24 when he was coming into his prime, and I’d be coming into my mid 30s and you could leave another hole there.”

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Then he got roped into a new role as manager when they needed someone to take charge of a league encounter earlier this year. Barry Coffey had done stints with their underage sides and agreed to coach the senior outfit.

Sheehan got to work but was working with a squad that undergone a vast overhaul. Of the starting fifteen that won the recent county semi-final against O’Callaghan Mills, there were seven changes from the All-Ireland decider 19 months ago.

Cathal Doohan and Stan Lineen had both flagged they were moving to Australia after that club final. Then earlier this year
Gearoid O’Connell and Pat Joe Connolly decided to head to the United States.

Injuries robbed them of their defensive rock Paul Flanagan, who had to undergo surgery to correct a knee issue in September.

Failed the NCT the first time so had to throw her in for the retest 🙈. #patellar #howyoudoin

— Paul Flanagan (@Paul_Flanagan_) September 10, 2018

Source: Paul Flanagan/Twitter

But they had Eoghan O’Donnellan, who sustained a serious neck injury in training in late 2016, back in action and Sheehan recruited a few more.

“It’s been a big change,” admits the Ballyea manager.

“But we were just lucky enough that we’d an awful lot of lads around the 22-23 mark. They were maybe a bit frustrated not getting game time last year and they’d built up the experience.

“There’s a couple I would have approached that would have maybe fallen away. Ryan Griffin would have joined the Clare football panel, he’s come back into the hurling this year. Cillian Brennan has been a major addition too.

“Brandon O’Connell had pulled away a little bit, he’s back now. With club rather than county, you do get away a bit more in trusting new lads.”

And he still has a few towering figures to base their side around, Clare’s football talisman Gary Brennan forging a midfield partnership with the hurling wizardry that Tony Kelly routinely supplies.

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Which of these Clare hurling stars will be smiling on Sunday evening? Cratloe's Conor McGrath and Ballyea's Tony Kelly will be in opposition in the county final showdown in Ennis. #GAA #clare #hurling #cratloe #ballyea

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“Gary’s influence might be under-estimated but he’s a real lynchpin in the dressing-room, it’s phenomenal. That 10 minute period when we’re getting ready to go out in the pitch, I suppose Gary and Tony really take over the dressing-room and look at lads and their work-rate.

“In training they chase down everything they can. It’s not like Tony only thinks about scoring his few points every game, he puts in the shift behind him. You’ve Jack Browne and Niall Deasy as well, lads who are well respected, and drive that work-rate.”

It’s all propelled them back to within touching distance of the peak in Clare hurling.

“I’d say it’s a surprise,” admits Sheehan.

“The penny only dropped for me when we went that fourth point up in injury-time in the semi-final that we were going to be back in the county final. The parish might be the same, I think that we were still a little bit of an unknown entity during the year.

“The bunting and flags have started to go up early in the week which was nice to see. We’re a small parish and it’s tight-knit.”

Tomorrow is the next stop as part of a new hurling journey.

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