FROM THE ARCHIVES Colin Sheridan is pictured in action for Balla against Breaffy’s Gerry Jennings back in 2003 at MacHale Park, Castlebar. Pic: Tommy Eibrand
Balla and Kiltimagh are not conventional neighbours
IN the early nineties, before most of the current Balla team were born, their forefathers travelled to North Mayo for an end of year senior league game.
The opposition - not long in the top flight - needed to win to preserve their senior status.
Balla - who had played and lost a county senior final the week previous, were comfortably safe. It was an opportunity to reward a few of the extended panelists. Give some young lads a taste, and some of the older boys a chance to reel in the years. There was - as I remember it -
no words exchanged between the two clubs with regard to how the match ‘should’ go,
but, as is the way of the club football world, there did exist a wink and elbow language of understanding; a loss for one team would’ve been devastating. A win for the other, inconsequential. In the end, the young bucks and old timers of Balla played with the reckless abandon befitting the occasion, gamely losing by a couple of points.
The opposition celebrated their survival.
To put in context how good Balla were then, they went unbeaten in the senior league the following year. Four years later, that Balla team of the Sheridan brothers and the Golding brothers and the Higgins’ - a team that took no crap from Knockmore and the Mitchels and the Stephenites, a team that seemed to win way more than it lost, was relegated to Intermediate football, yet to return to the top flight.
The other team - Crossmolina - stayed alive, and the following year won the first of its six county championships in 12 years. Whenever I think of that sliding doors moment, I think of Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way, choosing to push his nemesis Benny Blanco from the Bronx down the stairs, instead of plugging him.
“You better kill me now,” taunted Blanco “coz if I ever see you again…”.
Granted, Mayo senior club football is slightly less cut-throat than that of Puerto Rican gangsters on the mean streets of New York, but, the lesson endures; never just push a rival down the stairs, no matter how sad their eyes. They’re always gonna see you again, and make you pay.
When things are good, you never see the darkness, until you see it, and it’s too late.
In 1989, Balla won a minor ‘A’ county title, against Kiltimagh no less. A year later, the
school played Hogan Cup football. As Mayo repositioned itself as one of the best teams
in the country, between Pat Fallon, Maurice Sheridan and, sporadically, Ronan Golding,
there was never not a Balla man on the team.
Fast forward twenty one seasons since their relegation from senior football, and the many lows that followed for Balla are familiar to many small parish clubs. The ebb and flow.
The smiles and cries. A lost generation of footballers came and went, never knowing the feeling of pride of winning something with your friends. As Balla football fought an almost inevitable decline, Manulla AFC became one of the strongest soccer clubs in Connacht, sharing many of its players with Balla. The strains of co-existence not helped by the juxtaposition in fortunes.
Through nobody’s fault, Balla slowly tanked, until a new generation emerged. Balla started to win again. A minor ‘A’ title came in 2017, a Junior ‘A’ title came in 2018, an U-21 ‘B’ in 2019. Underage success guarantees nothing, but it certainly helps.
The age profile of the Balla team that defeated Ballinrobe in the county semi-final was such that Conor Walsh, at 28, was the team’s second oldest player. Now, there are a bunch of friends from the townlands of Belcarra and Ballyclogher, Lisnolan and Brownhall, that are taking this club within a game of senior football.
In their way, near-neighbours Kiltimagh, the perennial bridesmaids of Intermediate football. Like many, I stood in the fog in MacHale Park three seasons ago, and watched them seemingly win one against Moy Davitts, only for James Mulderrig to score a goal worthy of the Puskas award and deny Kiltimagh. That one must have hurt, but, to their credit, back they’ve come again and again.
Two towns that border each other should know each other a lot better, but, by consequence of circumstance, they don’t. The crossing of paths on the playing fields denied by contrasting fortunes. The social connection muted by the demise of the once legendary Craggagh Disco, the birthplace of the shift.
Craggagh is the point where the two parishes meet. It has been mooted that the final should be played in Dick Ronaldson’s field, which has a half in either parish. These clubs may not have recent history, but it’s there (my own grandfather Pat played for both clubs).
Saturday night will write another chapter. Kiltimagh will want to shake the trauma of the Mulderrig net-buster (I recommend they watch it on repeat for an hour before throw-in).
For Balla, a young team is staring down the chance to make senior club football their legacy. It’s what dreams are made of.