PRIDE OF THE PARISH Ballaghaderreen’s management team of (left to right): Pat O’Grady, Frank Kelly and John O’Mahony are pictured in the clubhouse last week.
The final countdown
THE week before the big day dawns and it’s a collection of some quintessential club championship images. The days are being marked off to only the club’s third County Senior Final and Ballaghaderreen GAA Club reverberates with anticipation.
Out on the field the players are split into groups as drills are ran through quickly. The floodlights pierce the darkness and instructions fill the air. Ballagh’s manager, Frank Kelly and his selector Pat O’Grady watch from the wings as footballs ping around the field. A booming voice urges players to “tackle” and “work”. It belongs to the track-suited figure that strides purposefully across the field. John O’Mahony, the team’s coach, is also in town.
Frank and John O’ both played in the last county senior final that Ballaghaderreen contested. That was 21 years ago. Both were also lucky enough to be on the 1972 team that won the club’s only Moclair Cup while Pat’s senior league medal in 1986 is his tangible reward for years of service. John O’ smiles as he lists his playing honours with the club, which include a Senior, Intermediate and U-21 title that all arrived in those halcyon days of 1972.
The three of them – together with Noel Durkin – have helped in no small way to bring Ballagh’ to this end game. They blend well and know each other’s personalities like only friends can. Now, standing side-by-side in the warmth of the clubhouse, they explain how it all came together.
“Well, firstly, I was delighted that John and Pat agreed to come on board,“ says the softly-spoken Frank Kelly. “That was very central to our season. Our aim was to progress from Division 2 and get into Division 1 football. We also said we’d wait and see what the draw was for the championship.
“We knew from the start we had a good group of players. We just wanted to see what their attitude was like and how training would go. We took each game as it came and we could see that they were progressing. They’re a close-knit bunch. They’ve come up through the ranks together and won together.”
To one side stands Pat O’Grady, a man who epitomises what club football is all about. His league medal from 20 years ago and an Intermediate Final in ‘91 were the highlights of what he describes as as “enjoyable” time playing with Ballagh.
“I worked with Frank at underage level and got to know a lot of the players through that,” he explains. “I help out at training, advise whenever I can, and try and give the players the benefit of my experience.
“I feel that we have to be able to measure ourselves against the likes of Crossmolina and Ballina before we know where we stand. Hopefully we can give a good account of ourselves in the final.”
AND then there is John O’Mahony. His presence in the backroom team alone invites conjecture and debate but it is obvious from the way he interacts with players and the rest of the management team that here he is just John O’. He taught most of the squad in Nathy’s and played football with the likes of Frank Kelly and Pat O’Grady. Despite his successes further afield, he’s a Ballagh’ man first and foremost.
“It’s great for me to back here and able to help out,“ he explains. “But getting to a county final is only possible because of the work that goes on here on Sunday mornings with underage. We also managed to win a schools’ title in 2000 with a lot of this team in Nathy’s and that has all contributed to get us to this point.
“The club went through a valley period and it was about starting from the bottom with the underage. I learnt my coaching skills here in the club and in Nathy’s but it’s fellas like Brian Tansey that put a lot of these players through his hands. Frank took them over at U-16 and they went onto minor. These were a special group of lads. It’s about attitude.
“But it’s a huge task what we’re talking about,“ adds O’Mahony. “To think that Crossmolina are still at the top of their game, and playing exceptional football after all they’ve been through, is incredible. They’re the bar by which our lads will have to measure themselves in the future. But we’re in there and we have a chance.”
When O’Mahony talks about football, especially his own club’s football, the words cascade from his mouth. He reflects on their season, ponders where it has twisted and turned, and decides that an evening in Flanagan Park, Ballinrobe was their crossroads.
“We were playing poorly and managed to dig out a point to win that evening,” he says. “That was crucial. It’s a very narrow line between turning a season into a disaster and turning it into where we are. James Mitchell did a lot with this team during the last few years, got them to an Intermediate Final two years ago, and then ran Ballina, All-Ireland champions at the time, to two points in the championship. If we’d lost against Crossmolina and been turned over by Ballinrobe we’d be nowhere now.”
WE conclude with a final word from all three. What will their last words be to their young team next Sunday as they run out against the county champions in McHale Park? “Performance,” offers John O’Mahony. “Let fellas play to the peak of their powers and let’s see where that takes us.”
“Have no regrets and leave everything on the field,” says Pat O’Grady.
And Frank Kelly? Well he goes back to 1985 for his words. “I’ll never forget looking up at the scoreboard. It was 3-1 to 0-1 after about ten minutes. And I’ll never forget the final score, 4-2 to 1-10. We’ll be trying to impress onto the lads that 1985 was a long time ago and that’s how long it’s taken us to get back again.”
New boy feeling right at home
Derek Moran has enjoyed a fairytale first season with Ballagh’.
UPSTAIRS in the Ballaghaderreen clubhouse and the sound of cups, plates and footballers ball-hopping fills the air.
John O’Mahony tucks into a plate of chicken curry, Stephen Drake wolfs down a plate of sandwiches and Andy Moran strides purposefully around the room. All around there are well-known faces and household names. All Ballagh’ born and bred.
Against this backdrop Derek Moran fits in perfectly. He is 25 years of age and, like many of his team-mates, a player who is comfortable with the ball in his hand. But he is no ordinary Ballagh’ footballer.
Moran, a first cousin of Andy, grew up in Tybohan between Frenchpark and Ballaghaderreen. Until last February he played all his football with Western Gaels in Roscommon and Ballagh’ was just a place where he worked and lived.
But all was about to change. Moran went to school in St Nathy’s, won an All-Ireland senior B colleges title with them and was taught by John O’Mahony. Those factors all played a part when he decided to transfer his allegiances. And here he is, on the cusp of a county final. Waiting. Hoping.
“Everyone wants to have a big county final,” he admits, “but, looking realistically at the panel we have, all five subs could come on. You may not have a full game so my ambition is to get on and do my best for as long as I can go. If I have to crawl off the pitch I will.
“Whoever I’m marking is not going to score. If I can stop someone scoring I know my scores will come. I don’t go into a game looking for scores because if I do I know they won’t come. I go in to help the team.”
And that is the half-forward’s game in essence. He’s a team player. He works hard and he can take a score. That’s what caught John O’Mahony’s eye in Nathy’s and Moran admits that they get on well.
“I kinda’ knew what to expect and I knew that he’d get the best out of me. I hope he does. I’m probably not fully there yet,” offers the self-employed carpenter.
“I was taken off against Charlestown in the quarter-final just after half-time, I just couldn’t get going. I don’t know what it was. There was a big improvement though against Knockmore.
“I may have been lacking a bit of confidence going into the Charlestown game but John sat me down, had a chat with me, and made me believe in myself, as John O’Mahony does.
“Every game I’ve had I’ve got a little bit better and I think the speed of the game against Charlestown just surprised me a little bit. I wasn’t expecting it. But John has a great calming effect on the team.”
O’Mahony, Frank Kelly and Pat O’Grady have presided over six championship games with Ballagh’ this season. Five have been won with one draw. Derek Moran ponders what he’s seen in the Mayo Championship and decides he’s been impressed.
“The standard of football in Mayo is closer to county standard than Roscommon is,” he explains. “Maybe a lot closer. It’s probably even above county junior football. When you come up against the likes of Crossmolina, Ballina, those sort of teams, you wouldn’t get those quality of players on a club team in Roscommon.
“I was actually surprised with the panel of players in Ballagh’ too,” he adds. “I knew the core of the team, lads that I grew up with, but the younger lads like Pierce Hanley and David Kilcullen surprised me. They’re playing like 25 and 26 year olds and they’re only 19 and 20. But that just shows you the quality of team you have in Mayo. Every team that we go out against you see two or three star forwards. That doesn’t happen in every county.”
And now Ballagh’ find themselves dining at the top table. But it is no accident. Years of underage coaching and success has led the club to this senior final. Derek Moran may be a new arrival but he is also a fast learner.
“If you come in here on a Sunday morning you’ll see fifty or sixty young fellas out on the pitch. All the parents give a hand too and you can see here tonight how well we’re looked after.
“You see lads travelling from Galway and Dublin and Andrew Hanley is coming up from Waterford on Thursday night to train. Plus, for me, coming into the club, my cousin, Andy, was a huge help to me in terms of settling in. It’s a great club.”
The sandwiches are disappearing fast, and after a ninety minute training session Derek Moran is keen to eat. Any final words? “I think it’d be a great time to win a county title. We’re a young bunch of lads with no fear and that’s going to count for something against Crossmolina.”
Told you he was fitting in perfectly.