‘It’s been a crusade really for this team’ – Ballygunner’s Munster breakthrough after 17-year wait

WHEN BALLYGUNNER REACHED the Munster club hurling summit for the first time in 2001, Fergal Hartley was at the heart of the action as a centre-back powering his team to victory.

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Ballygunner players celebrate their Munster title victory.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

There’s been no shortage of frustration and suffering since then in the Waterford club’s attempts to land a second title. 

And when they eventually got over the line yesterday in Semple Stadium, Hartley was pulling the managerial strings from the wings in guiding Ballygunner to glory again.

“This has been a dream of this team and it’s been a crusade really for this team. This wasn’t a one-year project; this has arguably been a seven- or eight-year project.

“Our first priority every year is to try and win our own championship but when you get out there then, obviously you want to go the whole way but we’ve come up short and the reality has been we haven’t been good enough.”

Ballygunner manager Fergal Hartley.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Ballygunner set out to correct that in 2018. It’s been a season where they have had to dig deep after conceding early goals but the memories of their comebacks against Cork’s Midleton and Clare’s Ballyea fuelled their belief yesterday.

“We had to go back to the drawing board and I won’t quite say start again but we realized we weren’t going to win a Munster with the same performance as last year and we took it game by game,” outlined Hartley.

“At the back of our mind was where we wanted to be. We wanted another crack at Na Piarsaigh. They’d beaten us in two Munster finals.

“You could argue that this was a 17-year crusade but this is what the lads wanted. When the chips were down and we always talked about recovering from adversity when things go wrong – how are you going to react?

“Three times this year – against Midleton, Ballyea and then in a Munster final against Na Piarsaigh – sucker punches like that goal early on. It has to be innate; you can’t put that into someone and these lads have it.”

Hartley hailed the commitment levels of his Ballygunner squad.

“They’re an incredible bunch – they really are – and I think you could see that against there today. Some of the more senior guys needed a bit of a break early in the new year. We tried to afford that to them as best we can.

“But once these guys got going, they live for this, they live for this. I know it’s club level and it’s not often compared to inter-county level, but I mean these guys prepare themselves like inter-county players. They put their lives on hold and it is difficult but these guys were ready to go again.

“They’re an easy team to manage that way and it’s not just on big days like this. We get this every day in training. They’re a pleasure to be a manager of, it’s an easy job.”

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Brothers in arms! Here's what it meant to siblings JJ and Wayne Hutchinson after Ballygunner finally defeated Na Piarsaigh in Munster to lift the provincial title today. #Ballygunner #ChampsAtLast #GAA

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When the hysteria generated by this win settles, Ballygunner will start to think about upcoming dates. There is an All-Ireland campaign to attack next spring, 17 years after Hartley was part of a side defeated by Galway’s Clarinbridge at that stage.

“This club is going for 64 years and we’ve once ever had (one) shot at playing in an All-Ireland semi-final so this is our second shot so you have to go for it.

“We won’t be sitting on our laurels, of course we’re happy where we are but these opportunities don’t come around too often.

“I’ve been there once before but when you get to the last four, every team that’s there will believe they can win the All-Ireland because they’re brimming with confidence.

“If you can get through Leinster, get through Ulster, I know the Connacht boys I suppose go straight in but any Galway champions are good enough to win an All-Ireland. The competition is going to be ferocious but all we can do is be the best that we can be and put our best foot forward.”

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