Stephenites at a crossroads
You couldn’t call it a crisis. After all they are just one game away from a county senior championship quarter-final. But there is no doubting that Ballina Stephenites are struggling.
The 2005 All-Ireland club champions have flattered to deceive in this season. They’ve only won two out of their six league games, losing the other four. Their opening round championship group game against Charlestown saw a disappointing defeat and they laboured to overcome Louisburgh next time out.
That win sees them in a simple situation facing into the final group game against Westport. Win and they are effectively in the quarter-finals. Lose and, well then there’d be a crisis.
Liam McHale is part of the management team this year under the charge of Liam Higgins. The former Mayo star is involved in a consultancy role, helping out when he can, his main commitment lying with Sligo side Castleconnor this year.
He doesn’t deny that Ballina’s form has been average at best but feels that that is about to change for one very important reason.
“There is no doubting that it is a major advantage for the Stephenites to have Mayo out of the championship. I think it is very difficult to serve two masters. We have six or seven lads involved and if you are playing with a club like Ballina or like Crossmolina there are huge demands placed on you.
”I know from my 13 or 14 years involved with Mayo and more than that with Ballina that nearly every Sunday you were playing a big game. I think it takes its toll because you are expected to play well all of the time and it is certainly a problem for Ballina who have so many involved.”
The former Mayo selector also makes the point that Ballina have had to cope this year without Ronan McGarrity and Liam Brady through illness and injury, along with the indirect effects of the Mayo involvement of the likes of Pat Harte, David and Ger Brady, David Clarke and Enda Devenney.
“If you are missing two of your best players and add in county players who might not always be available, you are going to struggle to replace all those players. The team were playing poorly but I think they have improved in recent weeks. I don’t think they’re playing anything like their best but they are still playing well enough to get to the quarter-final,” adds McHale.
Eanna Casey, a Ballina player who was involved with Mayo for part of this year, concurs in part with McHale that Mayo’s early exit will benefit the Stephenites.
“I think we will benefit from the county scene having wrapped up so early. Having the five or six lads back in brings some continuity for our preparations but I don’t think we can use the county issue as too much of an excuse because Crossmolina have the same problem and seem to have coped fairly well,” argued Casey.
Casey points to injuries as being problematic for Ballina but also admits that, subconsciously, the club could be in a state of contentment since the All-Ireland club title.
“There is possibly a comfort zone. My own view on the club title is that it is done and it was great. But we’ve plenty of young lads who weren’t involved and if we keep harping back to it we’re not going to get anywhere. You want to achieve as much as you can while you are playing. You don’t hear the Kerry lads harping back to one All-Ireland.”
And as for the future Liam McHale feels it is foolish to rule Ballina out as contenders for this year’s county title.
“The team has been struggling but they are the type of team that can turn around and win a county title,“ he says. “They are still good enough and young enough. It’s just a question of whether the ambition is there in the team. They are not at their best form yet but if they get to the quarter-final I hope they’ll be able to move through the gears.”
Last year’s county semi-final defeat to Crossmolina was a game Ballina could and should have won. It would be easy to aim for the champions and a shot at redemption but for Eanna Casey the only game that matters is Sunday’s duel with Westport.
“We can only concentrate on the next game, we can’t have any vendetta. If we get back to playing Crossmolina we can think about it then but not now. Westport will be very tough. We were disappointed to lose to Charlestown but we went to Louisburgh and ground out a tough result. All we can do is play away ourselves and hope that things get right.”