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Sunday 19 January 2020

Boden blip recovery targets final stage

Ability to win tight encounters echoes the form that marked their All-Ireland success of 2016

Shane Clayton says Ballyboden has the feel of a country club
Shane Clayton says Ballyboden has the feel of a country club

Forty-three days after they won the 2016 All-Ireland club title in Croke Park, Ballyboden St Enda's beat Naomh Olaf in one of those early-round county championship games that get shoe-horned into the pre-summer months and by consequence, seem totally disconnected with the rest of the competition.

Their next championship victory came exactly two years later.

With a largely young and impressively-athletic squad, it had been anticipated they would - at the very least - challenge hard for that year's county title.

Even within the savagely competitive environs of the Dublin SFC, Ballyboden's disappearance was a curious one.

Rarely has an All-Ireland winning team faded so noticeably so quickly.

"We were probably enjoying it too much," recalls 'Boden defender, Shane Clayton.

"The likes of Corofin, they just keep going and going.

"It's so tough just to win Dublin. We weren't really expecting to go that far.

"Once we got there, it was like 'Jesus, this is the Holy Grail.'

"It was ridiculous. Everything just came at once."

Football-wise, there wasn't a whole lot that changed for Ballyboden in that time after their All-Ireland win, although the loss of their highly-organised, intensely-motivated manager didn't help.

Andy McEntee, inevitably, ascended to the role of Meath senior manager, replaced by occasional Dublin forward of the Pillar Caffrey era, John O'Brien.

"That didn't work out too well," Clayton notes. "And things just died off for a year or two."

Comeback

Paul Durcan, who had made a couple of stunning interventions in both the tight Leinster final win over Portlaoise and the All-Ireland semi-final with Clonmel Commercials, never played for Ballyboden again after St Patrick's Day 2016.

Ballyboden were, however, listed as his club in match programmes last summer after he made a comeback to the Donegal squad.

Otherwise, it was the same group that scraped eventfully through Leinster in 2015, demonstrating a remarkable ability to come back and win from positions of impending doom.

The same team that took Castlebar Mitchels apart in Croke Park in the final with their pace and movement.

They were knocked out of the 2016 Dublin SFC by Kilmacud Crokes when the competition resumed and in the first round of the following year's competition by St Oliver Plunkett/ER, although they did go on to win the subsequent Dublin senior football tournament, a microscopically re-branded version of the 'B' championship.

Given their recent achievements in both codes, it is not a win that ranks highly in Ballyboden's honours list.

And with the talent available and relatively young age profile of the squad, their absence from the sharp end of the Dublin SFC seemed more a temporary arrangement than any real sign of decay.

"Anthony (Rainbow) came in there at the start of 2018 and steadied the ship and it just grew from there," Clayton explains ahead of tomorrow's All-Ireland semi-final with Kilcoo in Breffni Park (3.30).

"It was a two-year plan."

Rainbow's first season in charge at least featured decent wins against Raheny and Na Fianna.

But for the second year running, they were well beaten by Kilmacud Crokes - again - in the county semi-final.

"This year it just all came together," says Clayton with an acute sense of relief.

"We put a focus on just enjoying football more and doing it a lot more skill-based.

"Big emphasis on culture. We're hanging out a lot more together.

"That was good. It was just simple things. Even going for food together."

"Running sessions. A couple of tough sessions. Tough spin sessions. We were up in the Long Mile Road there in SBG (Straight Blast Gym).

"Things like that brought us together. It was just a buy-in."

There are other reasons why a successful club team dips.

Ballyboden weren't quite victims of their own success, but after the All-Ireland final, Clayton and Aran Waters were brought into the Dublin senior panel by Jim Gavin.

Already, Michael Darragh Macauley and Robbie McDaid were there and the following year, they would be joined by Colm Basquel.

"To try and integrate six or seven lads into a championship team when the whole club has been training just for the club … and then we're coming straight back in … it can be tough on a group," Clayton stresses.

"This year, we were fortunate that we just had the two lads (Macauley and McDaid) in there.

"So it definitely has a huge effect on the team."

It is obvious in how Clayton speaks of his teammates that they are an especially close group.

Despite the perception of Ballyboden as the quintessential big Dublin club, Clayton says a run such as the current one reinforces the sense of a tight-knit club on the Firhouse Road.

"It's definitely a big club family affair," he insists.

"Obviously Andy came in from Meath to a big Dublin club and he took it into his heart. He still keeps in touch. He tries to go to the games."

As it happens, Ballyboden played McEntee's Meath senior team last weekend in their final tune-up match before tomorrow's clash with the Ulster champions.

"He loves the club. You always see him knocking about.

"Anthony is the exact same. I don't know what's so special about Ballyboden. But once you're involved, you're part of it.

"The same with us. We all love each other. There's a real country club centre to it.

"All the executives are from outside of Dublin, so they brought that in.

"So the numbers may be big, but the same core is always there. That's where the family affair comes into it."

As it happened, last year was the 50th anniversary of Ballyboden's formation.

Proudly, they displayed the Dublin SFC trophy at the gala dinner staged last month to mark the occasion.

The anniversary "wasn't a motivation," Clayton stresses.

"But we knew as a club, it would be nice to mark it with something. It would be good to mark that gala with a few trophies.

"We knew the club gala would be more enjoyable if we had something to celebrate it with rather than just memories.

"It was great to celebrate that on the day with a current championship winning team."

Better again to follow it up with a second All-Ireland club title in just four years.

Results may have sagged in the four years since they last won Leinster, but their capacity to nick tight results is still intact.

On their last run to the All-Ireland series, they flirted with defeat against Portlaoise in the Leinster final and again against Clonmel in the All-lreland semi-final, who they dragged into extra-time.

ability

This year, they rode their luck hard against Na Fianna in another extra-time Dublin SFC quarter-final and needed two remarkable late points to beat Éire Óg in the Leinster final in O'Moore Park.

"The last day was the first time I got worried," Clayton admits ahead of tomorrow's All-Ireland semi-final with Kilcoo in Breffni Park.

"But we all have a belief in our group that if it comes down to the last five or ten minutes, we feel like we have the ability to dig it out.

"I don't know where that belief comes from. Maybe just from doing it over and over again. But we always feel like we have the players and the heart and the drive to give us one chance and we'll take it.

"I don't know how it keeps happening.

"It's just the work we keep doing.

"We know in those situations what we plan to do and what we hope to do and thankfully in the last couple of games, we've been able to do it.

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