Echo Sport Replay: Nelson looks back on the road that led Ballyboden to All-Ireland glory

Echo Sport Replay: Nelson looks back on the road that led Ballyboden to All-Ireland glory

By Stephen Leonard

BALLYBODEN St Enda’s GAA Club is not short on silverware and many great sporting memories, but their All-Ireland Senior Club Football Championship success of 2016 unquestionably stands among the greatest moments in the club’s history.

From having fallen two steps short of county glory the two previous years following defeats at the hands of St Vincent’s – the eventual title winners on both counts – the Firhouse Road side finally got the better of their Marino rivals in the 2015 decider.

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Colm Basquel celebrates scoring a goal for Ballyboden St Enda’s just two minutes into the All-Ireland Senior Club Championship Final against Castlebar back in 2016

It marked a successful close to the first phase of an amazing journey for the Ballyboden footballers who continued on to land their very first Leinster title after victory over seven-time provincial champions Portlaoise in the final at the close of that year.

And the adventure continued into 2016 as they saw off the challenge of Clonmel Commercials after extra time in the All-Ireland semi finals before serving up a resounding 13-point defeat to Castlebar Mitchels to capture the greatest prize in club football.

For Darragh Nelson it was a particularly special period in his career, having been made team captain by then manager Andy McEntee in 2015.

While never doubting the quality of the players he was now leading, Nelson could never have envisaged the level of success the team would enjoy under his captaincy over the next couple of years.

The Rathfarnham man had tasted county championship glory in the blue and white of the club the year he made his senior team debut back in 2009, but it would be another six years before he got his hands on the coveted prize again.

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Darragh Nelson lifts the Andy Merrigan Cup after captaining Ballyboden St Endas to victory over Castlebar Mitchels in the 2016 All-Ireland Club Championship Final

Looking back on the unforgettable campaign that ultimately led to All-Ireland success, Nelson recalled “We had a good group of players then and we got the likes of Colm Basquel and Shane Clayton, those players coming through, so they added a bit of youth and energy to the squad.

“It was coming into Andy McEntee’s second year at that stage and we had been knocking on the door a bit.

“Yeah 2015, we had a very good pre-season, where we actually went and did boxing in early January.

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Ballyboden’s Bob Dwan is all smiles after the final

“It was just a different approach, taking us out of our comfort zone, just to build a bit of team spirit and team morale.

“So 2015 was kind of a different start to the year and we kind of just built momentum. We had a good league campaign. We were unbeaten in the league running into the championship.

“I think we were confident in the first few games [of the county championship].

Ballyboden St Endas captured the All Ireland Senior Club Football Championship title in 2016 1

Ballyboden St Enda’s captured the All-Ireland Senior Club Football Championship title in 2016

“Having got to the semi final the previous year, we wanted to take that next step the following year, which was a county final.

“We wanted to get a good start and we got that. It was coming up to quarter finals and semi finals when the pressure really comes on with games that could have gone either way.

“[Kilmacud] Crokes have been a good rival of ours over the years and to get them early in the second round, you could look at that and feel ‘Ah jeeze it could be curtains.’

The Basquel brothers celebrate after the All Ireland Club Final of 2016 1

The Basquel brothers celebrate after the All-Ireland Club Final of 2016

“We knew we’d be up against it, but we’d been moving well in previous games in the league and we got a good start in the championship so it was nice to get one over on Crokes and keep going.

“In the quarter finals, it was one of the last kicks of the game against Oliver Plunketts, the dying moments when we won it which happened a lot throughout 2015 and 2016 in certain games.

“It was Andrew Kerin, who was one of our main scorers throughout the year. I think he got the last opportunity in that game off is left foot and no better man to put it over the bar in those moments.

“I think we could have gone into the semi final against Clontarf a bit complacent. We were a bit more relaxed versus playing a Kilmacud or a Vincent’s.

“I feel we kind of held back a little and Michael Darragh Macauley got sent off before half time which didn’t really help things.

“Macauley getting sent off in Parnell in front of their crowd, it just gave them a massive boost. The pressure was massive in the second half, but again we knew we had the quality.

“I think Stephen Hiney got a great score in that game, Stephen O’Connor as well. And I remember Dotsy O’Callaghan coming off the bench and showing his experience and getting a score at the end.

“So I suppose we had key players coming in at the right moments in each game through the whole of 2015 and 2016 and we were delighted to get a two point win against Clontarf on that day.

“Vincent’s had won the previous two Dublin Championships and they were going for a three-in-a-row. I remember all the headlines were about Vincent’s going for that three-in-a-row.

“We had that in the back of our minds that we can’t let this happen, so we were very focused going into that game, that’s one thing I remember, we were very focused.

“Vincent’s had gone well in the Leinster Championship and the All-Ireland campaign in those previous years so they were the team to beat and I suppose we had one of those days where we came out of the traps and everything was clicking for us especially in the first half.

“We built up a bit of a lead that made it very difficult for them to come back.

“The timing of Andrew Kerin’s goals was great for us. He got a penalty just into the first few minutes of the second half which gave us a 10-point lead at that stage I think, but we only won the game by four points in the end [2-8 to 0-10].

“They were always going to come back, but I think we just had the hunger in that game that year.

“The previous two years they had won it and they might have thought they’d get over the line against us, but we just had that bit between our teeth for that game.

“It was brilliant. Winning with your club and with your mates is a great feeling.

“It’s just about building those memories and then in years to come you can look back and share those experiences with the group of lads that you won with. For me that’s the most special thing.

“And then, of course, your family and friends who come out and support you as well. It’s great for everyone involved.”

With the Dublin Championship in the bag, Ballyboden quickly turned their attention to matters provincial and ignited that campaign with a 1-8 to 0-7 triumph over St Patrick’s in Drogheda Park.

“I remember it well” Nelson told The Echo. “The weather was shocking, it absolutely teemed down. There was rain leaking in the dressing rooms and everything. It was relentless.

“When it’s raining and when it’s wet and heavy, mistakes are going to happen and you don’t know how it’s going to go.

“But again in the last couple of minutes we had that quality and, if I’m not mistaken, Colm Basquel got the crucial goal to give us that cushion and a goal in that game was going to be the winner.

“For the Leinster semi final we did our homework on some of St Lomans’ key players, the likes of [John] Heslin and Shane Dempsey and we got off to a good start.

“Sam Molony got a goal in the first half which kind of gave us a bit of a cushion and I think the referee kind of killed the momentum for both teams, which suited us in a way because we had a lead.

“I remember Loman’s were getting frustrated and I suppose that prevented them from coming back and we closed them down.

“We’d reached our first Leinster Final. We’d never been there before. We knew Portlaoise were a very good side.

“When you think of Leinster Championships, you always have Portlaoise around finals. I think they were going for seven or eight at that stage.

“But finals are there to be won. I suppose Andy didn’t want us to hold back and the message was to just win your individual battles.

“That game was relentless to be honest. You actually didn’t have a second to think, it was just that fast. It was end-to-end, it was point-for-point and again it was one of those games that was going to be still in the melting pot in the last few minutes.

“The goal from Macauley was crucial, but then they’d already scored a goal as well. Some of the hits that were going in were massive. Personally I just remember you couldn’t get your breath in that game.

“I know we won the All-Ireland and everything, but that for me was my favourite game to come out of.

“I remember Aran Waters coming off the bench and kicking the winning score and then Paul Cahillane missing that free where he could have forced extra time. It could have swung either way, but it just swung our way in the end.

“It was when the final whistle went that you knew you’d made history for the club. We just felt elation and pride. We were so proud that we had made history for the club.

“It was December time when we won the Leinster Final and it wasn’t until near Valentine’s Day in 2016 when we played Clonmel [in the All-Ireland semi final].

“We were confident going into the game because on the other side you had Castlebar Mitchels and Crossmaglen [Rangers]. Everyone knows they’re two great sides.

“They’d been in All-Ireland Finals and won All-Ireland Finals so I suppose, maybe in our heads, getting Clonmel, who’d got a late goal against Nemo Rangers in the Munster Final, we were confident, perhaps similar to the Clontarf game in the Dublin semi final.

“Andy and the management team did their homework on them. We knew they had good players and were a very organised team and were hard to break down.

“But to be honest, come halftime we probably weren’t playing to our full potential. We missed a few chances that we’d like to think we would have got in other games.

“They were getting a few key scores towards the end of the game. Then Declan O’Mahoney gets sent off with a few minutes to go and you’re thinking ‘we’re not going to pull through here’.

“But again we built on that experience of being in those types of situations throughout the whole campaign.

“We just got one or two opportunities that we took at the right moments and we forced extra time.”

Nelson himself served up the equalising score in a dramatic closing few minutes that saw the Dubliners hit three injury time points to restore parity and force extra time.

“They had the ball for a kickout and the keeper was going long most of the time and he kicked it long down the middle. I think it was Aaron Waters who got his hand to it and got possession.

“The way he just won the ball kind of gravitated towards the side I was on. I just knew there was space in front of me so as soon as he got the ball I took off and screamed for it and he gave me a good pass.

“I knew if I got inside the 45 I’d be capable of putting it over the bar. I kind of just had to get by one or two players and I just put the head down and put it over.

“Yeah, it was crucial to force extra time and that’s when we got the winner and the rest is history.

“But there were so many moments throughout the campaign that everyone stepped up and this was just my turn that day.

“I’d say forcing extra time was a killer for Clonmel. It probably sucked the life out of them a bit because they didn’t score in extra time and we got five points in that period.”

Having been forced to battle tooth and nail to dig out narrow wins many times on the road to the 2015/16 All-Ireland Final, the ease with which they managed to see off Castlebar Mitchels [2-14 to 0-7] in the decider was something that certainly surprised Nelson.

“You’d love those games to happen all the time especially in big finals” he said.

“You can’t really put your finger on it, but for whatever reason, the game was over after 15 minutes really.

“Colm got the first goal and Bob Dwan was knocking over a few points. Our scoring efficiency throughout the whole game was massively high and again we built such a massive lead early on, Castlebar were just looking around then.

“They had one or two attacks and they hit the post as well and that can deflate you even more.

“I remember before the game we met up in Sancta Maria, one of our pitches, that’s where the bus collected us from.

“We had Paul McGinley come and speak to us. He’s a member and played with Ballyboden and is obviously a former Ryder Cup captain and won it.

“He was just saying to us that day ‘you’re a team, but you all have your individual battles that you need to go after and win and if you all do that, the result will take care of itself’.

“I feel that you couldn’t fault any of us that day. We all did our jobs including everyone that came off the bench and the result took care of itself.

“We were just immensely proud. Like I said earlier, I was lucky enough that Andy chose me to be captain at the start of 2015. I humbly accepted and to go on and do what we did and to lift the Andy Merrigan Cup was just amazing.

“It was amazing on the day, but it’s only now and in years to come that you really see just how proud a moment that was.

“I remember Andy saying that we’ve achieved something great that only a handful of clubs have achieved, we’ve joined that elite group.

“For any team in Ballyboden to be in an All-Ireland final in Croke Park, you expect every club member to go and support, be it hurling, ladies football, camogie. Everyone just pulls together.

“We went on to win Leinster last year and got to an All-Ireland semi final.

“You’d like to think that we’ve earned the respect of other clubs around. The group of lads that we have and the management team that we have set such high standards and expect such high standards.

“We’re always going to do our best to try and compete for championships. With young lads coming through each year, those are the standards that they’re seeing and hopefully they can continue that.”

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