Power shifts back to Ballagh’
IT will not be remembered as anything other than a transfer of power. After two historic years Ballintubber ceded control . . . unable to bridge that 37-years-old gap of three-in-a-row titles. The Moclair Cup is now where it belongs.
Ballaghaderreen held the reins throughout the game. But it took Barry Kelly’s goal, the only goal of the match, in the final minute of ordinary time, to affirm the eventual destination of the title.
They had chances to clinch victory much earlier. But somehow Ballaghaderreen like to play on the brink, to tie their followers in suspense until the last moment, as if it would wring greater pleasure from the achievement.
And for a long time after the finish knots of winning supporters hung around in the sun out on the pitch letting the feel of victory wrap around them, revelling in a memorable success . . . the club¹s third county senior title.
The closeness of the scoring was the only aspect of the 75 minutes that held the attention of the general attendance, however. It certainly was not the calibre of the football. In fact a lot of the exchanges was dire stuff, not the quality you would associate with a county that had reached the All-Ireland final a few weeks back.
Ballintubber, although on the back foot throughout the game, made a fight of it. Devastated by injury, they battled on to the end. Their hopes of emulating Garrymore, the last winners of the three-in-a row, had taken a severe knock when their county star Cillian O’Connor picked up a shoulder injury in a league match with Ballina.
Without him they just about secured a final place. But on Sunday it became patently clear that the young man was irreplaceable.
To make matters worse they also lost Alan Dillon. He has been their talisman for the last decade, pre-eminent throughout the growth of the club, through league and championship. Having picked up an injury in training he was not fully fit for the battle, and was forced to retire half way through the second half with a head injury.
It was the last straw for the struggling champions. No crisis like this one had confronted them during their spell at the top. This was too much. With Dillon’s departure the end was clearly in sight . . . even though they continued to resist the inevitable right to the end.
Difficult though they made it for themselves, Ballagh’ were beyond any doubt the better side. They tore into the game as if anxious to get it over with, to set an early marker. Fierce tackling ensued by both sides, and the fervour of it spoiled the play to some extent.
At midfield where we had expected it all to happen there was stalemate. Two sets of midfielders with county experience, the winner’s Barry Kelly and James Kilcullen and Danny Geraghty and Jason Gibbons for Ballintubber set the scene for our high expectations.
But throughout the first half they were deadlocked in the struggle to gain possession in any way at all. Clean catching became impossible. Bunching, hounding, flaking, pulling, dragging left no winners.
But Ballagh’ won most of the breaks, and in the second half when fitness emerged as their main asset, Barry Kelly stood out for his high work rate and tireless mobility.
Although listed at midfield, Geraghty started at wingback to allow Micheal Hoban partner Gibbons with Ruaidhrí O’Connor moving to the forward line. And for a while the exchanges were even enough with Gibbons prominent and claiming their first point in the 7th minute.
Barry Regan with the first of his five points from frees and Keith Rogers had already bagged two for the winners, but there was no room for fancy stuff, and the fact that so many survived the hard knocks was testimony of the degree of personal fitness both teams had reached.
Keith Rogers at centre-back was a commanding figure in that first half, his surges through the centre making serious inroads on the Ballintubber defence. And their captain, Stephen Drake, led by example at corner back, his timely interceptions constantly stemming the Ballintubber tide.
Just before Ballagh’ went three points ahead, the champions were presented with one golden opportunity to test the nerves of the men claiming their throne.
It happened when Gibbons, having taken a pass from a sideline kick by Ruairi O’Connor, opened a channel for Padraic O’Connor, but with only the keeper protecting the goal, the ball screwed wide.
In a battle in which skill got little chance to survive this was a rare opening and it was not repeated. At the other end Ballagh’ could have put some daylight between them when Andy Hanley, unmarked and well-placed, hesitated and then took the wrong option.
With three between them, a goal then would have set Ballagh’ firmly on the way. In the circumstances, Hanley had two further chances to make amends, but those three points 0-6 to 0-3 still divided them at the break . . . and would go on to divide them up the 56th minute when sub Rory Conway made it four.
There was some astonishing inaccuracy by both sides in the second half. But David Drake could have killed off the game in the 40th minute if his shot, following a brilliantly sweeping move involving Kelly, Michael Tyrrell and Hanley, had not rebounded off an upright.
Ballintubber’s plight could be summed up in their lone point, by Dillon, of the second half and their rather meagre total of four for the entire game.
The Earleys, Myles Kelly, Liam Tunney and Cathal Hallinan did their best to stem the tide, but the overall strength and flair of Ballagh finally engulfed them and brought to an end a glowing chapter in the history of the club.
Ballagh’ have shown great courage and resilience this season and are equipped to win the Connacht title . . . if they want to. They set out on Sunday week against Curry and could yet end up meeting St Brigid’s of Roscommon in the final, a fixture to whet our appetites.
Big Tony stands tall for ‘Town
WHILE all this was going on, Charlestown were playing out their own piece of drama at Pearse Stadium with a comprehensive win over Carna-Caiseal in the Connacht intermediate championship.
Once again, Anthony Mulligan displayed the depth of his talent with a huge performance at full-forward. He showed courage and vision in every move and has fully flowered this season.
Ardnaree and The Neale must try again after their exciting draw in the county junior final. In truth neither deserved to win, however.
The Neale stormed into the game as if to have it sewn up by half-time. But Kevin Newell’s bullet of a goal changed all that and for long periods in the second half they struggled to keep pace with the Ardnaree men.
A goal from the penalty spot by Seán Cosgrove steadied them, however, and amid swings of near misses both clung on, and deserve another cut at it.
Ballina manage to stay senior
SO Ballina survive. I don’t think it was ever on the cards that the aristocrats of football were about to slide out of the senior picture for the first time in their distinguished history.
Although it happened to close rivals Castlebar, the league form of Ballina suggested they were in better shape than a few recent games indicated.
But leaving it to the eleventh hour jolted them. And in panic they turned to their former star David Brady to haul them to safety.
The fixture with Kiltane drew a championship-size crowd to Knockmore where the Stephenites imposed themselves on the game with renewed energy. Racked as they are by emigration, Kiltane acquitted themselves well, but ultimately were forced to yield to tradition.
Just a thought …
IT’S that time of year again when we get round the table to select the Club Stars nominees. We’ll be sweating it out over the next few weeks, selecting thirty players from which the winners will be announced at a banquet on December 15.