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How Heartbreaking Defeats Have Forged The Character Of Ballygunner

How Heartbreaking Defeats Have Forged The Character Of Ballygunner
By Gavin Cooney
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This weekend, Ballygunner will be in the unique situation of finding succour in a history filled with tales of thwarted glory.

The club have turned Waterford hurling into their own, personal fiefdom in recent years, and their win over Abbeyside last month earned them a fifth-straight county title. Since 1995, there have only been three seasons – 1998, 2008 and 2012 – that they have not been part of county final day.

Since, they have occupied a kind of liminal space in which they have proven much too strong for their own county, but not quite good enough to conquer their province.

Since winning their last Munster title in 2001, Ballygunner have lost four finals, two of them during this five-in-a-row streak. The most recent defeat came to Na Piarsiagh in last year's final, losing to the eventual All-Ireland finalists by eight points. No Waterford club has ever won a club All-Ireland hurling title; De La Salle were the last side Waterford side to claim Munster when they did so back in 2010.

Still, while these defeats will itch and scratch and gnaw at the 'Gunner players until they get over the line, it is not quite the same as the provincial famine that the club endured up to a December day in 2001.

Prior to that occasion, Ballygunner had lost all of the four Munster titles they had played in. The first two were a pair of comprehensive defeats in 1966 and 1968, deciders that came at either end of a three-in-a-row run through Waterford. From there, the club didn't win a county title for fully 24 years, before ending that particular drought in 1992. County titles followed in '95 and '96, but it wasn't until the last of those years that they again got their shot at a Munster final.

Again, they lost: by a single point in a classic against Wolfe Tones. The Mirror wrote that the game "will rightly go down in history as one of the best ever finals in the history of the Munster Club hurling championship", but that they contributed to a classic final was of little consolation to 'Gunners. They trailed by 12 points at one point in the second half, but a relatively quick salvo of three goals brought the game back to life before Tones edged ahead again. A late 'Gunners goal, however, narrowed the margin to a single point, but in spite of a heroic Paul Flynn performance (his 2-4 was half of his side's total), they lost once again.


In 1999, they again faced a Clare side in a Munster final....and again they lost. This time St Joseph's were the opposition, this time the margin was four points.


Two years later, however, deliverance at last: for once they didn't face the Clare champions in the final, and Blackrock of Cork were the (belated) bystanders to history.

Given 'Gunners trauma on the stage to then, they had to rely on their opponents underwhelming in order to finally wriggle over the line. "One perceptive observer pointed out that in the past (specifically 1996 and '99), Ballygunner had started finals so nervously that they were facing a substantial deficit by the time they started to play. The Cork side's profligacy ensured that history wasn't going to repeat itself on that score" wrote Sean Moran in The Irish Times. 


17 years on, that remains 'Gunner's only Munster title. The recent tightening of their grip on the Waterford championship has meant that the four defeats since bear the hallmarks of a kind of famine. Five-in-a-row is their best ever run at home, which makes the failure to succeed at Munster level all the more galling.

While their nemesis back in the day was pretty much whoever came out of Clare, the foe is more easily identified today. Limerick's Na Piarsaigh are responsible for each of the 'Gunner's last two final defeats, and they are the opposition again on Sunday.

Speaking last year to the Irish Examiner, 'Gunners legend Paul Flynn lamented their defeat to Na Piarsaigh in 2011, back when the Limerick side played the plucky provincial upstarts. Ballygunner led that game but contrived to concede two late goals. From there, Na Piarsiagh went on to the Munster title and 'Gunners found themselves another hoodoo. "If Ballygunner had beaten Na Piarsaigh that day, back in 2011, there wouldn’t be any talk of them not being able to beat Na Piarsaigh now", said Flynn.


Incredibly, Na Piarsaigh have yet to taste defeat in the Munster championship, and have never failed to burnish county success with a provincial laurel. 'Gunners know the opposite side of that streak, but if successive final defeats portend gloom, perhaps they can console themselves with a couple of omens.

They had to lose four finals before winning in 2001, and have lost four finals since.

After the '99 final defeat, downbeat centre-back Fergal Hartley admitted that "it's going to very hard to come back after this. It has been our ambition for a long while to win a Munster title, but who knows from here?''


After last year's reverse, their manager was similarly desolate. "The lads will be gutted. Two huge days and Munster championship is what we have been dreaming about for a long time now. I suppose after winning four [county] championships you’d be hoping that you’d get Munster success in one of those. We’ve had some good days, but came up short...[A] Munster final again seems like a long long way away...It just seems like a hell of a long way away again".

The manager's name? Fergal Hartley.

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