WHAT began last autumn with 566 clubs from all across Ireland is now down to two teams vying for glory at the national stadium on Sunday afternoon. One of those teams is Ballynanty Rovers, a club that does not have a clubhouse or even a pitch to call its own.
Now, the players of Ballynanty Rovers will get to fulfil the dreams of thousands of footballers across Ireland when they grace the Aviva Stadium pitch on Sunday for the FAI Junior Cup final (kick-off 2pm).
After battling through nine rounds against teams from Limerick and beyond, ‘Balla’ are potentially just 90 minutes away from lifting the trophy, although they will need to stump the bookies if they are to overcome Tipperary opponents St Michael’s. Ballynanty Rovers manager Damien Conway has no problem with his side being classed as underdogs. In fact, he sees it as a positive.
“St Michael’s are an excellent side and they’re on a great run this season as well. The odds are against us but it’s a cup final and you never know what happens in a final.
“We’re used to the tag of being underdogs in every match that we’ve played in the latter stages of this competition. We welcome the underdog tag and hopefully it will serve us well.”
As a knock-on effect of Ballynanty’s prolonged cup run, they have been kept busy in recent weeks as they catch up on previously postponed league games. Conway feels that this has worked in their favour in terms of keeping minds focused.
“The good thing that we’ve had since the semi-final is that we’ve played a lot of matches. Because we went so far in competitions like the Munster Junior Cup and FAI Junior Cup, we’ve been behind in league matches. We’ve been playing two to three matches a week since the semi-final so we haven’t really had time to soak in the atmosphere.”
‘Balla’ have already sampled a taste of a big occasion, with hundreds of supporters from across Limerick turning up at Jackman Park last month for the semi-final against Collinstown from Dublin.
Ballynanty’s penalty shoot-out success prompted a joyous pitch invasion and, as treasurer Anne Marie Stacke explained, sparked unprecedented activity around the club.
“It was all surreal. The Monday morning after the semi-final, the phone started ringing and the e-mails started coming in. The itinerary started coming down and we thought ‘Oh my God, how are we going to do all this in the next three or four weeks?’, but we’ve got there. We’ve even recorded a club song along the way and it’s exciting times.
“We’re getting support from other soccer clubs and all kinds of sports clubs. We’ve had messages from local rugby clubs and soccer clubs all over Ireland. It’s just surreal, absolutely surreal.”
As Anne Marie mentioned, ‘Balla’ have received musical backing from Limerick group The Madhatters, who recorded a cup final song entitled ‘We Will Walk 500 Miles’, a parody of The Proclaimers’ 1988 classic ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’.
The commitment of Ballynanty’s players to the cause was best epitomised by the Herculean efforts of vice-captain Dermot Fitzgerald on the day of the semi-final. He zoomed down the M7 for the match against Collinstown, having been in Dublin just hours earlier playing rugby for Thomond.
His cousin Jason Hughes, now playing League of Ireland soccer for Limerick FC, was a Ballynanty Rovers player until last September and his support for the club remains as strong as ever. Hughes is confident that his former team-mates can defy the odds one last time and take home the trophy against St Michael’s of Tipperary.
“It’s absolutely massive for the club. They don’t even have their own clubhouse and they play in the public park so for them to get to the final of the FAI Junior Cup in the Aviva is massive for everyone involved in the club and for all the players. There’s a great buzz around the place now so hopefully they can go on and get just one more win.
“When I was with Balla last year we played against St Michael’s and we actually beat them 1-0. They are on a decent run but in a cup game anything can happen on the day. Balla have a really strong side and I really do think that they can do it. I’ll be cheering them on and every ball that they kick, I’ll be kicking it as well. I just can’t wait for the game now.”
Ray Houghton, the former Ireland international who so famously put the ball in the English net at the 1988 European Championships, was at Thomond Park this week in his role as FAI Junior Cup ambassador and he gave an insight as to what the Ballynanty players can expect on Sunday.
“It doesn’t matter now what happened in the semi-finals. Now it’s all about how you handle the pressure on the day. The players might have played in another stadium, but this one, you’re coming out to a 50,000 all-seater.
“You think the pitch should be its normal dimensions, but it’s amazing when it’s in a stadium environment, all of a sudden you look around and it feels bigger. Your legs get tired more quickly and it’s just how you handle the day. It’s going to be a fascinating encounter and both teams are there on merit.”
Meanwhile, Dermot won’t have to worry about beating the clock this weekend. His sights are firmly set on making history with Ballynanty Rovers and fulfilling a long-held dream.
“We went up to the stadium on Sunday. They were showing us around where the teams would be presented with medals and trophies after the game and then it hit me. I’d love to be walking up there and lifting the trophy after the captain picks it up.
“It’s unreal. Until you’re up there you don’t realise how much it means to you and I think it hit everyone when we were up there the other day that we could actually go on and win the tournament.”
Ballynanty Rovers have won nine matches to earn the right to play at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday. They only need to win one more to become heroes forever.