Stephen O’Keeffe was joint captain for Ballygunner’s victory.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

TALES FROM THURLES on club afternoons for Stephen O’Keeffe.

In 2009 he was a teenager between the posts as Ballygunner fell short by a pair of points in a Munster final against Newtownshandrum. Another final in 2015 in Semple Stadium with O’Keeffe in goal as Na Piarsaigh bettered the Waterford club by seven points.

In 2016 in a quarter-final it was local side Thurles Sarsfields who prevailed 0-17 to 0-16, Pa Bourke arrowing over an injury-time winner from a ’65 after O’Keeffe had tipped a shot behind the endline. Last year at the venue, more pain in the form of a loss in a decider to Limerick’s champions again.

A dejected Stephen O’Keeffe after Ballygunner’s Munster club hurling defeat in 2016.

Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

So after those days of devastation, yesterday was a moment of deliverance for the Waterford netminder in club colours.

That Munster club hurling crown was finally in their possession.

“It’s hard to sum up. Now that we’ve finally got there, maybe it makes all the heartbreak we had a few years ago, it makes it a bit more sweeter. It’s very hard to put it into words. When you lose two Munster finals, you kind of say what else is there to lose and you just go at it full whack and really never give up until the final whistle. 

“Last year we got a goal to bring it to within a point in 59 minutes and then Na Piarsaigh having that extra bit of gear, that extra bit of experience, they kind of steamrolled us in injury-time to win by eight points. I remember very well because I was standing over there bawling my eyes out. Just to actually get here and to get up the steps, it’s indescribable.”

The joint captain was in the thick of the action, involved in key moments that influenced the course this game took. He stepped up before half-time to nail a penalty to the net at the Town End and then in the same goalmouth he sprung to his side to thwart a Shane Dowling snap shot at a crucial stage late on.

“I wouldn’t even call it confident or not confident (taking the penalty), I seem to have a talent for being able to block things out completely. I suppose maybe it’s a mechanism of taking pressure off that you know you just give it your best, if it’s good enough, it’s good enough. If you’ve done the training, it should be. That’s easy to say now that it went in, if it went wide I might be telling you a different story.

“Then I’d a very good sight of it in fairness and I think Shane (Dowling) was hitting it off balance in fairness to him. I think under normal circumstances if he’d time to set himself, there probably would have been no hope of me saving it but the backs were in fairness fighting tooth and nail for even to get close to people. That was the attitude we came with today.”

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Brothers in arms! Here's what it meant to siblings JJ and Wayne Hutchinson after Ballygunner finally defeated Na Piarsaigh in Munster to lift the provincial title today. #Ballygunner #ChampsAtLast #GAA

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Ballygunner’s resilience was forged in the precarious positions they had found themselves in during this Munster campaign.

“I think the two games we played against Midleton and Ballyea really stood to us. When you come up to the Munster final and you’re playing a team that have beaten you twice in the last three years and then suddenly they get a goal in the first two minutes, the natural thing would be to drop the head.

“But I think it’s because we were in the position in the last two games. I think that does build in a bit of resilience, that it’s a long game. If you just keep the head, you’ll get your chances and it’s about taking them when they pop up I suppose.

“We could have been beaten the last day by Ballyea, we got the rub of the green. We kept pushing and we got the result. It is a testament to the lads in fairness.”

And now a Munster medal will rest in their honours list. Ballygunner have swept to seven county titles during O’Keeffe’s club senior career, the absence of a provincial triumph would naturally have grated.

Defender Ian Kenny celebrates Ballygunner’s victory.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It’s easy to say now that if we hadn’t have won, there would have been regrets but there would have been. We spoke about it all year.

“There’s absolutely no shame in losing to teams like Thurles Sars or Na Piarsaigh or Ballyea if we’d got beaten the last day, fantastic teams.

“But at the same time, when you get into the competition five times and you get to the final, this is our third time in the final, if you don’t get over the line, there will be regrets.

“I suppose we felt we had enough in the tank to win a Munster championship but unfortunately on the day over the years we’ve come up against fantastic teams that have just been better than us. Finally we’re after getting to where we want to go.”

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