Ballygunner manager Fergal Hartley. Photo: Inpho.
“No one could deny us our victory,” uttered Fergal Hartley to John A Murphy in the corner of the Ballygunner dressing room just minutes after conquering Blackrock in the 2001 Munster club final. The one they had searched long and hard for.
Sixteen years on, he reflects upon it as the indisputable high point of a lengthy club career. “It was the biggest win, no question. We went through a tough route back then. St Joseph’s DooraBarefield were a huge team at the time, All Ireland champions three years previous. Toomevara were at the peak of their powers back then as well. Blackrock was probably the easier of the three games to a certain extent. To this day, it’s probably the biggest victory for any of the players involved.”
They didn’t turn up for the first half in either the ‘96 or ‘99 finals. At the third time of asking, it was a now or never scenario for that Gunners collection. “Definitely. In ’95 and ’97, we won some big games and came undone then in semi finals. We had five attempts prior to that, if you include ’92 but ’92 wasn’t really a proper attempt. We won the championship on a Saturday and had to play Sixmilebridge the following day up in Sixmilebridge. It was our first championship win in 24 years so, as you can imagine, there was a few pints that night so we were on a hiding to nothing! So we had five attempts and that team was ageing. I was 29 years of age and the likes of Fra, Ray Whitty, Billy, Mick Mahony and so on were 31 or 32 so we were a team coming towards the latter end. Thankfully we got there.”
The celebrated centre back was named man of the match in the 2005 final as eventual All Ireland winners Newtownshandrum outscored them by five points to one over the closing eleven minutes to emerge 0-16 to 1-12 victors. “You couldn’t say that they didn’t deserve to win but it was certainly there for the taking, probably more so than ’09.”
Of his four losses on the field of play, ‘96 rankles most.Driven by the Lohan brothers, Wolfe Tones enjoyed a 3-6 to 0-3 head start before Paul Flynn and company very nearly clawed it all back.“We gave away some soft goals in the first half and we went twelve points down. We lost by a point in the end. We laid siege on their goal in the second half and Flynner hit the crossbar with a couple of minutes to go. We felt that if there was another minute left, we would have at least got a draw. That was certainly one we felt that we could have won.”
They conceded three first half goals to St Joseph’s DooraBarefield three years laterand trailed by ten before another valiant rally. “It’s going to be very hard to come back after this,” stated Hartley immediately after that game. “It has been our ambition for a long while to win a Munster title but who knows from here?”
They came back for more on that December day in ‘01.
After eight matches in as many weeks, the current Gunners team had a well-earned break to recharged for Na Piarsaigh. They ramped it up again with a get together on Sunday morning. “Our training was relatively light. After a hard eight weeks, it was a case of rest and recovery as much as we possibly could. We did a bit of fine tuning over the weekend and that’ll continue into this week.”
During that hectic period, they took it one week at a time but Munster was always a burning ambition. The first four in a row success in the club’s history was set asidepretty quickly. “We had a very low-key celebration after the county final and that was it. It was heads down again and by the following day, everyone was fully focussed on Thurles Sarsfields. They’re a pleasure to manage in that regard. There’s no question of anyone not towing the line or anyone breaking the rules or not doing whatever they needed to do. I couldn’t manage an easier bunch from that perspective.”
Three of their last fourwins have been by a puck of the ball, beginning with that close shave against Lismore. “Lismore was the big one given the conditions and given the challenge that they put up to us,” Hartley reckons.“Lismore looked like they were going to beat us for a period. That’s been hugely rewarding, far more so than in earlier parts of the championship when we had a few wins that were reasonably comprehensive. You certainly learn more and get more when you come through a real hard battle. The Lismore game certainly prepared us for the weeks to follow.”
Their progress to a ninth provincial showpiece wouldn’t have been possible without former Offaly hurler David Franks in the backdrop. “David has been huge; he looks after all the coaching. He’s a super guy and we’re really lucky to have him. I can say for an absolute certainly that we wouldn’t be where we are, preparing for a Munster final, were it not for the capabilities, competences and skills of David Franks.”
He hurled with Carrickshock from 2006 onwards and took over as manager in 2015. “You do a bit of homework and you find out about a guy,” Hartley explains.“I approached him, met up with him and that was it. We got on well from the start and still do. We’re blessed to have him. It’s no different to any other club. You get a name recommended to you and on you go from there.”
2016 All Ireland champions Na Piarsaigh boast ten wins from ten outings in Munster and breezed past Blackrock by 22 points earlier this month.Even without Shane Dowling, the Caherdavin menrepresent a step-up in class on anything Hartley’s crew have encountered to date. “We know the size of the fence that we have to jump. We’re up another level here even on Thurles Sarsfields and Sixmilebridge.”
Fergal in action against Jamesie O’Connor of St. Joseph’s Doora Barefield in the Munster Club SHC Final of 1999. Photo: Inpho.