"We're not going there just to fulfil the fixture." - Clough/Ballacolla hoping there's more to come
It's been some 2021 for Stephen 'Picky' Maher.
Having been chosen to captain the Clough/Ballacolla senior hurling team at the start of the year, he's led his club not just to one, but to two Laois county titles. Those victories came within the space of three glorious months on the back of the of the Covid-19 pandemic but there's been no such heartbreak in Clough/Ballacolla.
Tipperary man Declan Laffan came in at the start of the 2020 championship and since the team haven't even lost a game. They followed up the first Laois title with another but the good times didn't stop there. Just three weeks ago they defeated Wexford champions Rapparees to win their first ever Leinster championship game and last Saturday night they defeated Kilmacud Crokes.
Next up is pinch-me-time, it's a trip to Croke Park this Sunday to take on the most successful club team ever in Ballyhale Shamrocks but just as has been the case on every step of this journey, they'll go there believing.
"To go to Croke Park with your club, that's something special and I'd say I could speak for everyone on the team by saying we didn't think we'd see Clough Ballacolla up there," says Maher on The GAA Hour.
"We were written off the last day and we'll probably be written off again but we're not going there just to fulfil the fixture. We're going there to try and beat Ballyhale Shamrocks and that's what we'll try and do."
— The GAA Hour (@TheGAAHour) December 13, 2021
Because in geographical terms, Clough/Ballacolla is merely a dot on the map. In that way, they're not too dissimilar to their Kilkenny opponents which goes to show that great things, especially when it comes to club GAA, can come from small places.
"It's a tiny little parish. There's two little schools. If there's even 30 in the school in Ballacolla, the school that I went to, that's about it.
"They've only five teachers between the two schools. Look it's blink and you miss it going through Ballacolla. We've a church, one shop and a pub. But after the win the other night I've never seen so many people crying after a match and that shows how much it means to the community."
Maher says that, above all else, manager Laffan has worked the oracle by bringing things back to basics.
"Declan has just brought things back to basics, he doesn't over-complicate things. The drills are simple ones but sometimes simple drills are the best drills. He's just concentrated on working hard, winning dirty ball and getting everyone rowing in the one direction. Everyone's so close on the team, there's a great team spirit amongst us all right now.
"There probably is a harder edge to us and that's all about digging in and digging deep. The team has just grown in confidence having done that a few times.
"I'd say in years gone by winning a county final might have been enough for us. Sometimes, it can be so hard to win a county final that you'd nearly be happy with that but this seems a bit different last year and this year, we want to get the most out of it now because these days don't come around too often."
As for his own form, Maher puts it down to his desire to lead from the front as team captain.
"Some years you just find form I suppose. I've had a pretty good year but I've had years when I've been brutal as well. But when the good comes, you have to take it. And being the captain, you have to show your experience and lead from the front and that's what I'm trying to do."
And what about two county title winning speeches in the one month?
"I actually had this conversation with my sister when it came to the final. I still had the 2020 speech and I said will I just use the same thing but obviously, I didn't want to get too far ahead of myself either, I just changed a few lines around I suppose and it still worked anyway."
Magic. In Clough/Ballacolla, they'll be hoping there's more to come this Sunday.