Eugene McGee: GAA club life at its best on a rainy day in Portlaoise
It has been a long year of football, but I haven't seen a better contest than the Leinster club semi-final, which I watched in terrible conditions in Portlaoise. This game really had it all except for one thing – a fairy-tale ending.
We nearly got one, too, but for a brilliant save by Portlaoise goalkeeper Mike Nolan in the final quarter. But this really was a marvellous exhibition of club championship football of which both teams should be proud.
This applies particularly to the Killoe players, who had come from nowhere after a gap of 17 years to win the Longford championship with a very young team and were 5/1 against winning this game with the bookies.
As they and their manager Tommy McCormack have done all year, Killoe went out with a spirit of adventure. they had survived two championship draws in Longford and then beat the champions of Wexford and Meath before this match and raised their game to exceptional heights against a vastly more experienced club side who have won the past six Laois titles.
This was a game of exceptional quality as well as competitiveness, with the more direct style of the visitors really causing problems for a more methodical and highly organised Portlaoise.
It was the home team who were that bit cleverer in the tackling of opponents and, time after time, they stole the ball from Killoe. Indeed, that was a significant source of supply for the victors because in open play – particularly in the middle third of the field – Killoe held the advantage, with wing half-back Michael Quinn having a massive game to back up midfielders Simon Kiernan and Paddy Thompson.
Portlaoise deserved to win because they enjoyed more possession, particularly in the opening 20 minutes, when they seemed to be shocked that an unheard-of Longford club could be putting them under so much pressure. But, in the end, experience eventually tells – and also the reserves of stamina that a club with Portlaoise's record have accumulated in the past seven years, with a few Killoe players out on their feet in the final 10 minutes of the game.
Midfielder Adrian Kelly had a fine game and scored a couple of good points, while Paul Cahillane's class shone all over the field at times. But, Portlaoise still have some wrinkles to iron out before thinking of winning the All-Ireland title, not least in regard to their free-taking.
Killoe, after their initial disappointment, will be very pleased with their season, and this performance in particular. Their defenders – apart from one lapse which brought Portlaoise's goal – were excellent against vaunted opposition, with the McCormacks in the middle outstanding.
The supply of ball to their forwards was patchy at times and cost them dearly, but the goal attempt by Mark Hughes in the 44th minute, which was saved by Nolan, was the ultimate turning point in this fabulous game of football.
The Killoe fans, who outweighed the home crowd by about four to one, deserve great praise for their enthusiastic support of their heroes – club life in the GAA at its best.