This evening in O’Moore Park sees the clash of Ballyroan-Abbey and Arles-Killeen in Round 3 of the Laois SFC.
For the winners, the prize is a quarter-final place in three weeks time. For the losers, their season is over. A year ago they met at the quarter-final stage when Arles-Killeen won in a decent battle to reach another semi-final.
This year has been somewhat underwhelming for both sides. Both were relegated from Division 1A of the league, although Ballyroan-Abbey ended on a high by beating Portlaoise in the final game, a result that denied Portlaoise a place in the league final.
In the championship, Arles-Killeen were involved in two good Round 1 games with Portarlington, losing after extra time in the replay before bouncing back in the next round to see off Mountmellick Gaels.
Ballyroan-Abbey were red hot in the first half of their opening round win over Crettyard Gaels but were very nearly beaten in that game and then were well off the pace against Portarlington the next day out.
For some, the clash of these two will bring back memories of the 2006 Laois SFC final, arguably one of the most novel county final pairings of all time. While the game itself was largely forgettable – Ballyroan Gaels winning 0-10 to 0-7 – it was a memorable occasion for Ballyroan and one that Killeen will no doubt classify as one that got away.
It was a different time in Laois football. The last year of the Mick O’Dwyer era, the championship was played in group stages, four groups of four with the first round in May, a round in June and then a break until Laois’s season was over.
Ballyroan actually lost their opening game to Clonaslee but did enough to get out of their group to set up a quarter-final clash with the reigning champions Stradbally. That was a game that kick-started a remarkable run of fixtures. Seven days later they won the replay in Timahoe and a week later they played Arles-Kilcruise in the semi-final. Again they drew before winning the replay six days later to reach their first final in 13 years.
Arles-Killeen endured a very different run to the final. With the likes of Beano and Paul McDonald and Donie Brennan all at the peak of their powers they were actually one of the favourites for the championship and with Bobby Miller at the helm, they had a playing squad and a manager the envy of most clubs in the county.
But tragedy was to strike, Miller sadly passing away during one of their group games in O’Moore Park in one of the saddest moments the Laois GAA grounds has ever witnessed. Wicklow man Hugh Kenny took up the reins and they went all the way to the final taking out St Joseph’s and then Emo in the knockout stages after the championship was blown wide open when Portlaoise were knocked out by O’Dempsey’s in a playoff in Stradbally.
So it came to pass that Ballyroan Gaels – an amalgamation of Ballyroan and Abbeyleix – and Arles-Killeen met in the final. Killeen were favourites but inspired by the likes of MJ Tierney (who scored seven points) and captain and man of the match John Madigan, Ballyroan Gaels eked out a 0-10 to 0-7 win.
Because they were an amalgamation they weren’t allowed to play in Leinster though so that honour fell to Arles-Killeen who went down narrowly to Tyrellspass from Westmeath in a bad-tempered game.
On the back of winning the championship Ballyroan Gaels would formally become Ballyroan-Abbey but their first year together as champions was a disaster. They were relegated in 2007 after five losses on the bounce but came straight back up in 2008 and won a Leinster intermediate title for good measure.
Killeen arguably never had as good a chance again. Portlaoise would embark on their nine-in-a-row voyage the following year and have played in ten finals in succession. Killeen have been among the best of the rest during that time but two final appearances and a Division 1 league title is all they have to show.
Ballyroan-Abbey are now well settled as a unit and although they’ve yet to make another breakthrough at senior they’re one of the finest underage setups in the county.
That day 11 years ago remains a treasured moment. There was joyous scenes in O’Moore Park – with Cllr Mary Sweeney and her brother Marty Scully rocking the place with their rendition of the Skies O’er Ballyroan. The scenes in the village that night were equally momentous.
Only two of that Ballyroan team – Tierney and Padraig McMahon – will start tonight though Michael Brennan is a selector and Eoin Kearns is now the Killeen manager. Paul and Brian McDonald are two of his selectors. Nine of that Killeen team in 2006 are still involved this year.
Pat Ryan – as he was in 2006 – is in charge of Ballyroan having done spells with Killeen as well as with Emo and Portlaoise in the meantime.
This evening’s game doesn’t have the status of the one back in 2006 but that’s a fixture that will remain in our memories.
And Alf Harvey’s pictures bring it all back to life.
BALLYROAN GAELS: Gary Scully; Niall Wallace, Eoin Kearns, Enda McDonald; Darren O’Dea, John Madigan, Padraig McMahon; Daire Phelan, Alan Burnell; Scott Conroy, Danny Donoghue, Gerry Scully; MJ Tierney, Michael Brennan, James Keegan
ARLES-KILLEEN: Mick Leigh; James Mahon, Enda McDonald, Barry Miller; Brian Kennedy, Shane Julian, Paul McDonald; Ricky Dunne, Arnie Mahon; Billy O’Loughlin, Brian McDonald, John Mahon; Jason Enright, Eamon Mahon, Donie Brennan