County and Provincial Junior champions
28 February 2006
Ballinagore may have suffered the indignity of being relegated at the end of the 2004 intermediate campaign, but the club bounced back at the first time of asking. Not alone are they the junior champions of Westmeath but Leinster as well.
A culmination of injuries to key players like Eoin Miller, Ger Linnane and Michael Ennis, who hardly played a match together, older players retiring and a serious lack of confidence in the squad all contributed to the side’s demise.
Club P.R.O Paul Seery admitted that it was heartbreaking to be relegated, although he believes it could have been the kick start that the club needed to get the club back on track, following a number of near misses from qualifying for the knockout stages of the intermediate championship. Ballinagore came into this year’s junior campaign as favourites and they lived up to that billing as a four-point win over St Paul’s in the final secured their intermediate status for 2006.
"Last year was on the cards alright, but that didn’t take away from the fact that everyone was bitterly disappointed. No team likes to be relegated and we’re no different," said Paul.
"We got into a habit of losing matches and when that starts, it is very hard to stop. We were also going through a transitional period as a few of the older lads decided to retire and the younger lads were inexperienced," added Paul.
"Sometimes a club needs a few wins under their belt to build up the confidence and that certainly helped us this year. It took us a while to get going, but when we did you could see the confidence growing."
For the 2005 campaign, the club had a reshuffle in their managerial team as former player Sean Robinson took over as trainer, while Liam McDaniel, who was over the team in the previous two campaigns stayed on as selector and they were joined by Martin Seery.
"There wasn’t a thing wrong with the previous management team, it’s just that the lads needed to see a fresh approach to training and Sean was well respected by the players as he had played with most of them," stressed Paul.
"We knew at the start of the year that we had a good chance of qualifying for the knockout stages, which gave us plenty of time to get the squad in order for the remainder of the campaign. We had a great incentive going into the championship as we felt if a serious effort was put in, we would be very close to wining."
Ballinagore were placed in the same group as the exclusive junior clubs i.e. St Paul’s, Ballycomoyle, Loughnavalley, St Fintain’s/Multyfarnham and Delvin. They kicked off their campaign against the latter and were expected to win the match with ease.
The end result suggests that was the case (3-13 to 1-6), but Ballinagore struggled to get into their stride in the first half and were forced to rely on county star Michael Ennis for scores.
If they thought Delvin posed a threat than Ballinagore suffered a real scare in their second outing when Multy almost caused a huge shock by running Sean Robinson’s side to three points, 3-8 to 2-8.
Loughnavalley also proved to be tough opponents for Ballinagore and once again the South Westmeath side only had three points to spare 0-12 to 1-6, but the important statistic was that they were unbeaten in their opening three matches.
The side really hit top form in their next outing as they comprehensively beat Ballycomoyle by 5-12 to 1-6, which guaranteed them a place in the semi-finals with one match to play.
That match was their first encounter with fellow championship favourites St Paul’s and with little at stake, it was no surprise when the Clonmellon outfit recorded a two-point win.
The sides met again a few weeks later in the Junior Cup semi-final and this time the scoreline were reversed. Paul admitted that this result had a significant bearing on the outcome of the championship.
"We played poorly against St Paul’s in the group match and if we were to lose to them again, then it would have been a huge blow to the lads confidence, fortunately that was not the case and the result definitely inspired them," he said.
Ballinagore faced Ballycomoyle in the semi-final and the match was a lot closer than their group encounter when Sean Robinson’s side had 18-points to spare over the Meath-border club, although they still eased through on a 1-13 to 1-10 scoreline.
As expected St Paul’s were the opponents in the final. The match was a closely contested affair in the opening half as both sides struggled to dominate proceedings. However, Ballinagore’s physical strength began to show in the second half and when Michael Ennis scored the only goal of the match just after the break, the white and maroons never looked back, despite late pressure from St Paul’s.
The score finished 1-9 to 0-8 and Ballinagore had impressive performances from Ennis, captain Eoin Miller and James Durkan, who gave a man-of-the-match display, despite being only 16-years-old.
"It was a huge relief when the final whistle went. There had been a serious effort put in for the final and it was important to win. We knew at the start of the year that if we didn’t win it this year that there would be two teams coming down from the intermediate and it would be a lot more difficult in 2006," revealed Paul.
"We have a lot of young players coming through the ranks and it was great for them to have some success, it will definitely help them next year. Our main aim will be to consolidate our place in the intermediate championship and then build from there."
Despite having to choose from a small catchment area, Ballinagore have had their fair share of success at underage level, albeit as part of an amalgamation side with St Malachy’s and Paul revealed that the kids coming through the ranks are very talented.
"We have had our fair share of success at underage level and the amalgamation has worked very well indeed. We are fortunate that the young footballers from our club are very talented and that bares well for the future."
The fact that the club were still playing football in the latter stages of the year is something of a novelty for Ballinagore as their year has been over by July for the past few championships.
"That became a problem for us as we were finished in the championship by June or July and that was it for the year. It was then very hard for the players to get their fitness levels back up to scratch the following year, which left us struggling.
"However, we will only have a month or so of a break this time and that will surely help us. We were a beaten team before we went out in some of the championship matches, but winning the junior title has changed all that and the lads are very confident for the coming campaign," concluded Paul.
Ballinagore possess some of the most talented footballers in the county and no doubt will make an impact on the 2006 intermediate championship, while the success of St Malachy’s/Ballinagore at underage level has paved the way for a bright future.
Following Ballinagore’s impressive win in the junior championship, they were to represent the county in the Leinster junior club football championship. Westmeath teams have struggled in this competition in the past, but Ballinagore set about rewriting the history books.
In the first round, the Westmeath side recorded a 2-10 to 1-5 win over Kilkenny champions Carrickshock which left them in the semi-final. Dublin junior champions Wanderers provided the opposition in the last four and despite missing a number of regulars, Ballinagore managed to book a place in the final courtesy of a 2-8 to 0-7 win.
Kildare champions Grangenolvan made it through to the final also and were tipped as favourites to win the title, having defeated Meath side St Michael’s in the semi-final.
Ballinagore had home advantage for the decider, but when Grange raced into a 0-5 to 0-0 lead after just 15 minutes, it looked as if the Westmeath champions were out of their depth.
Nonetheless, they kept battling on and narrowed the gap to three points by half time after James Durkan and Michael Ennis both pointed frees in the dying minutes of the half. Grange had one last attack on the Ballinagore goal before the break, but Paddy Maloney made a great save when a goal looked imminent.
On the restart, the home side looked more determined and county star Ennis was coming more into the game. The same played converted a free when fouled himself to leave two points between the sides.
Grange hit back with two points with just six minutes of the second half gone, before Ennis replied from another free. After almost 20 minutes of the second was played, Ballinagore finally scored their first point from play when Eoin Miller and Ennis combined for the latter to kick over.
Ennis was now in full flight and a mazy run resulted in another free that was converted by Miller. Only one-point separated the sides as normal time was almost up. Once again, it was the Westmeath star who lead the way. Ger Linnane fielded a high ball before laying it off to the team’s talisman and he duly fisted over the equaliser.
Ballinagore had the opportunities to win the match right at the end of normal time, but could not find the target and extra-time was to be the outcome.
In the first ten minutes, there was only one score, crucially it was Durkan who fired over a fine score with his left boot.
Grange had not scored since the sixth minute of the second half and there was a genuine belief that Ballinagore could hold on. It was fitting that the final score of the match was fisted over by the excellent Ennis and scenes of jubilation erupted when the final whistle was blown.
Ballinagore’s amazing run was halted by Galway and Connacht champions Loughrea in the All-Ireland by an agonising one point deficit. However, it was a remarkable year for the club and one that will live long in the memories of all concerned.