St Thomas’ golden generation can upset the odds in Croke Park

 St Thomas' captain Conor Cooney  will lead his side against Ballyhale Shamrocks in the AIB GAA All-Ireland Senior Hurling Club Championship final at Croke Park on Sunday.  Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

St Thomas' captain Conor Cooney will lead his side against Ballyhale Shamrocks in the AIB GAA All-Ireland Senior Hurling Club Championship final at Croke Park on Sunday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The south east Galway villages of Kilchreest and Peterswell will be represented for the second time in Croke Park on the biggest day on the club calendar when St Thomas’ attempt to become the fourth Galway hurling club to win multiple All-Ireland senior titles on Sunday.

Aiming to emulate the superb achievements of Sarsfields (two wins ), Athenry (three ), and Portumna (four ), St Thomas’ face a formidable challenge in the shape of Ballyhale Shamrocks of Kilkenny, the most decorated club in the land with six victories to date, who have previously seen off Galway opposition in the finals of 1984 (Gort ), 2007 (Loughrea ), and 2010 (Portumna ).

Managed by the legendary Henry Shefflin, Ballyhale claimed their 16th Kilkenny title when defeating Bennetsbridge in October, which was followed by comfortable wins over Wexford’s Naomh Éanna and Dublin’s Ballyboden St Enda’s to capture the Leinster crown.

A dominant five-point win over Munster champions Ballygunner booked their place in the final and they are now odds-on favourites to claim the St Patrick’s Day spoils. Backboned by household names such as captain Michael Fennelly, TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly, and Joey Holden, Ballyhale are undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with, but they also have young guns in Adrian Mullen, Eoin Cody, and Evan Shefflin who are eager for their first title.

Having last won in 2015, Ballyhale would be expected to have a squad with more experience of the big occasion, but only seven of that side who beat Limerick’s Kilmallock were involved against Ballygunner. In his first year as manager, Shefflin has integrated a large portion of the club’s U21 winning side of 2017, and this appears to have re-invigorated the older members of the panel.

St Thomas’ victory came two years earlier in 2013, but they still have 11 of their heroes from that narrow win over Offaly’s Kilcormac Killoughey involved.

Captain Conor Cooney and David Burke will need to be at their sharpest, but St Thomas’ have quality stick men all over the field, with Darragh Burke, Shane Cooney, Fintan Burke, and Eanna Burke picking up the slack on the rare occasions when the Galway duo's form has been somewhat below their best.

Former Limerick supremo TJ Ryan is a major asset alongside manager Kevin Lally for St Thomas’ on the sideline, while experienced heads such as James Regan and Bernard Burke played a pivotal role in the club’s run to their third county title of the decade.

The Galway side on their day have the ability to cut open the stingiest of defences, and it would be surprising if either employed a spare man at the back, so a shootout is expected. Whether St Thomas’ can restrict the influence of TJ Reid and Adrian Mullen appears to be the biggest question mark over their chances, but a 14th Galway success is a real possibility.

There appears to be an appreciation that a chance like this may never present itself for St Thomas’ again, so this opportunity must be seized by its golden generation.

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