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'People were saying they were done'

Fortune favours Boden's blend of youth with battle-hardened know-how in pursuit of glory

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Ballyboden St Enda’s manager Joe Fortune

Ballyboden St Enda’s manager Joe Fortune

Ballyboden St Enda’s manager Joe Fortune

At different junctures during his three seasons on the Firhouse Road, Joe Fortune has become well accustomed to his team being written off.

It was like that when he arrived in 2018. It was like that two months ago.

All of which may explain why he isn't overly perturbed that the bookies have priced Ballyboden St Enda's as 3/1 outsiders for this Sunday's Dublin SHC final against the holders, Cuala.

The Wexford native was already steeped in Dublin hurling, where he managed county teams at minor and U21 level, before accepting an invitation to become Boden boss in 2018.

Five years had passed since the club's last senior championship - their sixth in seven stellar seasons. But time waits for no man, even Hurling Man.

That was the perception of the dressing room Fortune inherited - a theory amplified by the remarkable achievements, in Dublin and far beyond, of back-to-back All-Ireland champions Cuala.

"A couple of players and the club approached me in '18 to see if I'd be interested," he recounts.

"The previous year they'd beaten Cuala in the group stages, but they lost to Crumlin and then lost to Lucan in the quarter-final in O'Toole Park.

Rebranding

"So I was coming into a club, I suppose, where a lot of people were saying that they were finished and they were done. That there was a rebranding and a new element of player that was needed.

"But, you know, I saw a hunger in them in '18 - from the first day that I went with them."

There followed a hugely successful, almost all-conquering, year - a league and championship double in Dublin, and only a second ever Leinster club final appearance, where Henry Shefflin's Ballyhale Shamrocks proved a remorseless step too far.

Capital coronation came in a replay against Kilmacud. Featuring that day were Gary Maguire, Conal Keaney, Shane Durkin, Simon Lambert, David Curtin and (off the bench) Malachy Travers; all six had seen game-time when Boden claimed their maiden county title 11 years previously.

Maguire has since retired. Travers has now joined his fellow Wexford man's backroom team.

After the highs of 2018 came another dip and rekindled doubts. Boden's impressive league consistency (their only defeat all year came in the final against Cuala) was buried amid the embers of their last-eight championship exit, toppled by St Vincent's after extra-time.

Fast-forward to this year's testing round-robin opener against an old foe with a new post-lockdown twist. The TG4 cameras were in Parnell Park to capture it all live ... and Kilmacud Crokes cut loose to win by 14 points.

"Sport can be funny at times. Sport can be a huge reality kick as well," Fortune now muses.

Crokes' rich seam of natural talent was no secret. But? "Kilmacud that day were outstanding. And we weren't," the manager states bluntly.

"Was I worried? Again, you just have to put it back on ourselves and the players. Were we good enough? Were we prepared enough? Were we mentally ready for the game? And the answer was obviously 'No'.

"So, it needed leadership from the players afterwards. It needed leadership from me ... I had to look at myself and maybe the preparation in the lead-up to the Crokes game.

"But let's be honest about it, the weeks and months before that kind of determined a small bit where some teams were.

"And it's happened around the country, in other counties, where that first day is not necessarily a true reflection of where teams are going to be when it comes to the business end."

And that is precisely where Boden now find themselves.

Stalwarts

The old stalwarts - the eternal Keaney, Lambert as captain, Paul Ryan, Conor McCormack off the bench, and likewise Stephen Hiney after his return this year from Scotland - all helped propel them past a coming Na Fianna team 11 days ago. David Curtin, who turned 40 this week, was an unused semi-final sub; Durkin an injured bystander.

"I wouldn't swap any of them," says Fortune, "because what I have there in the Curtins and Keaneys and Lamberts and Durkins and Hineys ... I couldn't be happier with where I am."

For all that, the team keeps evolving, youth blending with battle-hardened know-how in pursuit of glory.

Cuala's impeccable pedigree explains their relatively short-priced favouritism; they have, Fortune stresses, "raised the benchmark for where Dublin clubs want to go."

Countering that, the challengers haven't lost a senior final since they started winning them, 13 years ago.

"Stats are great like that when they suit your conversation!" he demurs.

"We haven't mentioned what Cuala have done before. We haven't mentioned what Ballyboden have done before. Because a lot of those players are gone now; new managements, new set-ups ... and the type of year that it's been, I don't think you could look back on previous ones because it's been so different."

Different yet familiar. Boden and Cuala battling for the spoils.