JUMPING FOR JOY Balla’s Jack Harte and Ciaran ‘Gooch’ Kilkenny embrace moments after the final whistle in Saturday evening’s Mayo Intermediate club football championship final. Pic: Michael Donnelly
“There were not many fields
In which you had hopes for me
But sport was one of them.”
- Paul Durcan, Sport
MAYBE it was the joyful screams that echoed throughout a near empty stadium, maybe it was the sliver of blood red sky that hung above McHale Park before ceding to a spectacular navy, but there was poetry in the Mayo air on Saturday night as Balla ended a two decade purgatory, returning to senior football in emphatic fashion.
They started the evening in an unbreakable huddle on the field, minutes before throw-in, and ended it the same way. As the last of the privileged few lingered, the Balla lads formed a circle, arms around shoulders. Too often in these scenarios, the victory - although fresh - is tempered by what’s next; next game, next training session, next victory or defeat.
Not this time.
The huddle was a joyous one.
There was nothing for these young men to do but take pause, and bask in the glory of the moment.
In sporting terms, Balla’s gradual decline has been a traumatic one. Once feared as a club, they became a cautionary tale in what can happen to a parish who are riding high one minute, and slowly failing the next. Sometimes, the harder you try, the worse it gets, and so it seemed for a club rich with tradition, because in the decade and a half that followed leaving senior football in 1998, nothing seemed to click.
If this group of young men proved anything on Saturday night, it’s that whatever trauma may have been experienced is not their burden. People such as myself writing about winning senior league titles, and famous championship victories nearly a quarter of a century ago, serves little purpose other than to hold a club back.
This current iteration of Balla has no memory of it. It’s often said that ignoring history is a recipe to repeat it, but history can often inhibit and suffocate. Balla may not have ignored it as much as chosen not to care. Whether by accident or design, they have looked only forward. Saturday night was less a small step, more a giant leap.
Conditions could not have been more perfect in Castlebar for a new era to be birthed. One can only guess how you fill a day for an 8pm throw-in — only so much tea to be drank and jelly babies to be chewed — but one player it clearly suited was Balla’s Gary McHale, a man who usually starts work on the night shift in Baxter as the rest of us are putting the kids to bed. Everything he touched lit up the night sky.
There’ll no doubt be talk of bigger things for him, but, whatever happens, you’d hope his X Factor remains untouched. Early in the game, he side-stepped and burst into space, leaving Kiltimagh defenders flatfooted. His eventual shot was snap-hooked and hasty. It proves the measure of him that the next time he found himself in the same scenario, he kept driving, fisting over a pair of brilliantly taken scores.
Similarly the selfless work of full-forward Conor Walsh, a player whose emergence as a prospect a decade ago brought hope to a club long starved of it. Time after time, Walsh showed and won dirty ball. More importantly, when he couldn’t win it, he set a huge example with his tracking and tackling.
His namesake, goal scorer Aaron Walsh, followed suit. It wasn’t always pretty, but Balla didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it was only when things got super ugly for them, they revealed their best selves.
Early in the second half, leading by four and dominant, Balla seemed to suffer white-line fever. Shot selection became erratic, and transitions from defence over-complicated. Kiltimagh sensed the opportunity and slowly capitalised, driven by Sean Walsh from the middle of the park. Balla - so comfortable for so long - found their lead down to one.
The game was slipping.
Enter midfielder Barry Duffy, who plucked a kick-out from the night sky, and ran the length of McHale Park before kicking a point for the ages. Moments don’t win games, but it was a sequence of play that galvanised a team who suddenly rediscovered their self-belief.
By the time the final whistle came, even Kiltimagh - a team so long trying to force the door to senior ajar - seemed to accept their fate. There would be no last minute denial. No capitulation by their neighbours.
The young men from Balla, unburdened by a past they likely know nothing about, wrote their own story. A night such as this was a perfect antidote to a tough year. Surrounded by families and club-mates, they danced and sang, their voices amplified by the echoes of the colosseum they had just conquered. Faces were masked, but emotions were gloriously obvious.
The only thing empty was the stadium seats.
Balla hearts, for so long aching, were deservedly full.