THE STORY OF THE DAY Ballina's Shane Sweeney runs into heavy Tourlestrane traffic during last Sunday's AIB Connacht Club FC semi-final at James Stephens Park.
Pic: Keith Heneghan/Phocus
Ballina go back to basics
MISSION accomplished. Winning this Connacht club championship semi-final was Ballina’s objective and a typically honest, organised performance was enough, for now, to keep their run going.
Last Sunday was another reminder of what kind of team Liam Higgins et al have at their disposal. The opposition were stubborn and awkward, the pitch was soft, two key players [Enda Devenney and Liam Brady] were ruled out by illness and injury, and yet the Stephenites dealt with each and every obstacle.
Make no mistake, Tourlestrane made life extremely difficult for the homeside. They hit hard and often, defended in numbers, and in Eamonn O’Hara and Brendan Egan possessed two extremely talented, competitive strike-runners.
However, their attacking limitations had to be seen to be believed. They shot wides from left, right and centre and a close-range free that was dropped short by Gerry McGowan early in the second half underlined their lack of composure in front of goal.
The Sligo representatives were not helped either by the fact that Ballina’s defence were at their uncompromising best. All six turned in accomplished, disciplined, tight-marking displays and the statistic that they coughed up only score from play underlines their collective performance.
Kenny Golden, lining out just twenty-four hours after playing a starring role for James Stephens in the provincial club hurling championship, led by example as always. Martin Wynne and David O’Mahoney completed an impregnable full-back line with Brian Ruane, Colm Leonard and fit-again Shane Sweeney dove-tailing superbly outside them.
With this unit in fine form, and Ronan McGarrity and David Brady, meeting fire with fire in the engine-room, Ballina were never likely to lose a war of attrition. Not on home soil, in front of a partisan home crowd, and with Martin McGrath’s training regime having them in such fine fettle.
Still, the six week gap since their county final success did little for their ball retention at times, and it took three late points down the home stretch from man of the match Paul McGarry, David Brady and Patrick Harte (free) to finally put Tourlestrane out of their misery.
Despite the visitor’s profligacy and Ballina’s mean defence, a 26 minute scoreless period either side of half-time meant the Stephenites never disappeared into the distance. This inability to put Tourlestrane away also meant that Gerry McGowan’s 49th minute goal from the penalty-spot threw his team a life-line.
The experienced corner-forward endured a generally miserable day in front of goal but after being hauled down by Kenny Golden in the small square, he held his nerve brilliantly to drill his spot-kick past David Clarke.
This goal sliced Ballina’s advantage back to the minimum (1-5 to 1-4) but the winners responded admirably, breaking downfield and tacking on three points without reply to finally seal the deal.
Ronan McGarrity played a key role in the late blitz, ball-handling wisely and the accuracy of Paul McGarry, David Brady and Patrick Harte did the rest.
Harte also clipped a superb point on the run in the 12th minute which was supplemented by a neat score from Paul McGarry as Ballina ran incessantly at Tourlestrane’s under-siege backline.
Ahead by 0-3 to 0-1, the locals stitched together the move of the game in the 18th minute. Kenny Golden’s interception was the catalyst and a flowing five-man move ended with Shane Sweeney taking a pass from David O’Mahoney and cracking the ball past Seamus Gildea.
It was a rare moment of beauty on a day when many of the finer points of the game were lacking and the result was paramount. However, the score was also Ballina’s last for nearly half an hour.
In the interim Tourlestrane ran and tackled and worked incessantly but only managed a couple of frees from Gerry McGowan before half-time which saw them trot in behind by 0-3 to 1-3.
Their only point from play in the game arrived nine minutes after the restart from substitute, Matthew Walsh, but this was cancelled out by an inspirational run and fisted score by Ger Brady moments later.
There was little or nothing between the teams from there to the finish but Ballina’s physical strength and ball-winning ability remain two of their most potent weapons. That, and a mental fortitude that has always served them well and will be needed again when Frankie Dolan and company come to town at the end of the month.