Sunday, October 30, 2022


Ballina Stephenites senior football manager Niall Heffernan. Picture: David Farrell Photography

By Mark Higgins

Thirty-seven years have passed since Niall Heffernan was first involved in a Ballina Stephenites county title-winning team. Heffernan was still in his twenties when, in 1985, he served as a coach for a Stephenites team who, under the managership of Noel O’Dowd, defeated Ballaghaderreen on the eye-catching scoreline of 4-2 to 1-10 to claim the club’s first county title in 19 years. Two years later they won it again, beating Hollymount in the decider.

Heffernan had been drafted in as a coach after his own playing career was cruelly curtailed by injury at the age of just 21. He had enjoyed a garlanded underage career with the Stephenites but quickly found his calling as a coach. He has coached and managed at all levels with his adapted Claremorris over the last 30 years and also had a stint in charge of the Mayo under-21s. Now, he is back with his home club and in his second season in charge of the Stephenites, he has led them back to the county final, hoping to end another long wait for Moclair honours, this one extending back 15 years to 2007.

Niall Heffernan, captain of the Ballina Stephenites team, holding the Mayo U14 Football Championship trophy along with Mayo and Ballina football stalwart Paddy Blewitt, after the Stephenites’ victory in the 1975 county final. Also pictured is county board official Fr Leo Morahan.

“I feel it’s a great achievement for us to get there. It’s too long for a club like Ballina to be out of a senior final,” said Heffernan this week, at the press night ahead of Sunday’s showdown with Westport.

“But we’ve got there now, so that monkey is off our back. Now it’s about performing on the day and justifying being there. There are a lot of people in the club in Ballina who have put in a huge amount of work at underage to get us to this level, and we’ve just worked with those guys to bring it to the next step. We’re just looking forward to the challenge.”

Ballina have looked like a team finally ready to make the breakthrough this year. A couple of landmark results, like the win over reigning champions Knockmore in the group, and the victory over Ballintubber in the semi-final, have suggested that the near-misses and hard luck stories that have scuppered the Stephenites in the championship over the last decade and a half have finally been done away with.

“I think a lot of the players realised the work that needed to go in,” offered Heffernan when asked what’s different about Ballina this year. “We have a stronger backroom team this year, we’ve made some additions to that, which has been a huge help. But the players have bought into what we’re trying to do. They’re working really hard, they’re driving themselves on.

“We have a big squad, which is fantastic for competition. There were times during the year we were down 10 or 11 players for league games and we still were able to get good results. So that’s helped. The workrate the players have shown, on and off the pitch, and their attitude; it’s very much player-led. The players are the ones driving an awful lot of what we’re doing.”

The injection of a new crop of young players over the last two seasons has also helped change the face of the Stephenites. Frank Irwin, Sam Callinan, Dylan Thoron Ciaran Boland and Niall Feeney have been thrown in at the deep end by Heffernan and his selectors – Eanna Casey, Colm Leonard and Brian Queenan – in the last two seasons and the manager said their impact has been profound.

“It was a combination of things. Those lads were very ready,” he stated.

“They’re an incredible bunch of young men, and I mean young men. Their attitude, their approach; it was inspiring to the older players. Very quickly we let them know that they were really in our thoughts, they weren’t just there to fill up numbers.

“It’s an ongoing thing. I didn’t take the job in Ballina to get instant success. I took it to try to change an ethos, change some of the attitudes that were there before, and to build for the future. If we get success in my time, great. If we don’t, but we put great structures in place for the team to get stronger and stronger, that’s even better.”

The notion of changing an ethos and shifting attitudes can sometimes sound a bit abstract, but Heffernan boils it down to one simple stat: a club with the strength and heritage of Ballina shouldn’t be waiting 15 years between county finals.

“If you haven’t won, something is wrong. If you keep doing the same things, it’s insanity,” he stated. “You look at it and you change things, you bring different ideas in. You look at the character of the players you have, young and old. We’re just so lucky in Ballina to have incredible leaders like Clarkey, Ger Caff, P O’Hora, who just give the right approach all the time.

“They’re different personalities, but the right approach, the right example, the right way of talking to players. They’ve all made the young fellas feel really included. And you can see it when they’re together. There’s no divide between older players and younger players.”

More specifically, Heffernan implemented a back-to-basics approach when he first took the reins in 2021; set your foundations properly and build up from there.

“First of all, there’s accountability and responsibility. Loyalty to your teammates and to your club. We’ve treated them as people, because that’s what they are. We treat them with respect and we expect the respect to come back to us,” he said.

“But it was down to hard work. We made it very clear to the players about getting the basics right: catching, kicking, hand-passing, tackling, tracking back.”

Key to Ballina’s run to the final has been the form of Padraig O’Hora, who was outstanding again in the semi-final. O’Hora has become the heartbeat of this Stephenites side and Heffernan couldn’t say enough about the influence of a player he describes as ‘a great guy, and a fantastic clubman.’

“He’s hugely popular amongst everybody. You can see the kids, they just worship him. He has a great heart, he has a great way of dealing with other players. Padraig is as tough as nails. Someone said to me the other week, he’s a dog. I said yeah, he’s our dog. But he’s a friendly dog.

“That’s what you want. What I love about Padraig: you’ll often get hard men who can hit people, but they can’t take it. Padraig revels in it. The harder you hit him, the more he’ll come back. That’s a sign to me of a real hard man. Not someone who throws kicks or thumps, but someone who can go in, win a dirty ball, take four or five belts and get up and go again.”

Turning back to Sunday’s final, Heffernan said that some of the commentary after Westport’s semi-final win over Mitchels did the Coveys a disservice, and insisted that the final is likely to be a much more open game between two teams whose first instinct is to attack.

“I think when you’re playing against a team who sets up as defensively as Castlebar did, Westport were given a choice: do we play our normal style or do we go defensive as well? That’s what they had to do,” he reasoned.

“They’re not going to do that for a second in the final because we’re not that sort of defensive team. We’re not going to turn into that overnight. I think when you have the quality of players Westport have, and the success they’ve had at underage, and managers and coaches like Shane (Conway) and Martin (Connolly) who are very successful and hugely experienced, they know they way to a final is to play like they played when they had to in the last few minutes against Castlebar, or like they had to against us in the Centre of Excellence last year, when they really drove at us and got their scores.

“I can’t imagine them standing off, because that would be akin to them saying to their players: ‘you’re not good enough to beat Ballina at football.’ And I don’t believe for a second that’s their mindset. When you have their quality, not just the Lee Keegans, but the footballers they have and the skills levels they have. They’ll go for that game. Absolutely, they’ll go for it.”

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