LEINSTER CLUB specialists Eire Og and St. Patrick's fought to the death in their opener to the 2012 provincial competition before the Wicklow champions emerged victorious in an dramatic extra time finish to a rousing contest.
In the dying minutes of extra time St. Patrick's were clinging to a two points advantage, 2-10 to 111. Eire Og were battling for survival and applying the pressure for a winner.
Eire Og's Eric McCormack had been the bane of St. Patrick's life throughout the 80 minutes. Up popped the number 13 one last time and drilled a scorching shot to the net for a goal that had the word 'winner' written all over it.
St. Patrick's were down by a point, 2-11 to 2-10 and very little time left to make a meaningful response.
However the Wicklow men had grown into this match as it progressed and were playing with a confidence that said nothing was impossible.
From the kick-out they swept down the field one last time. Substitute Donie Fitzgerald, who won the county title with a late winner, pumped the ball into the Eire Og goalmouth.
Lurking menacingly, Paul Earls jumped with the Eire Og's Robbie Moore in accordance with the rule change and got the punch in first to send the ball over the line. The goal stood after referee Maurice Deegan had consulted with his umpires and St. Patrick's became the first Wicklow team to get over the first round of the Leinster Club in nine years.
Eire Og exploded from the blocks first in this game even though St Patrick's had the breezebehind them.
In the first minute the home defence fluffed a clearance in front of goal, Eire Og's corner-forward Simon Rea pounced on the opening to send his team into a one goal lead.
Eire Og came to this contest with five Leinster Club titles under their belt and initially at least the Wicklow champions seemed to be in awe of them.
St. Patrick's were standing off their opponents and, even though we had a quick response from Paul Earls with a point from a good ball from Austin O'Malley, it was the Carlow champions who were making most of the running.
Midfielder Murtough Ware was a link with the great Eire Og title winning teams of the 1990s, a nephew of Garvan Ware, and he and Sean Gannon were giving the visitors a decided and decisive pull in the centre of the park.
Central defender Derek Hayden, Alan Callinan and Ben Kavanagh were linking up with their attackers and Eric McCormack in the corner was providing the clinical finish. Eire Og were leading from the front, St. Patrick's were cast in the role of playing catch-up.
Against the run of play St. Patrick's were thrown a life line after nine minutes when Austin O'Malley was gifted a goal, his shot from the left touch line skidding in under the crossbar off the hands of the keeper Robbie Moore.
Minutes later O'Malley pointed a free and the Wicklow champions found themselves surprisingly leading by 1-2 to 1-0. Indeed Eire Og were only thwarted from landing a couple of more goal punches by the blocking and defending of the St. Patrick's backs.
Still Eric McCormack was a huge thorn in St. Patrick's side as he popped over three points in quick succession. Murtough Ware chipped in with another, profiting from the approach work of his midfield partner Sean Gannon and Eoghan Ruth, and Eire Og were back in the lead 1-4 to 1-2 that their dominant play deserved after 25 minutes.
St. Patrick's finished the half with a bit of a flourish and two points by Matty Byrne, the second from a free, but still they could count themselves rather fortunate to retire for the break on level terms, 1-4 apiece.
Whatever Gail Dunne said to his players at half time, St. Patrick's emerged for the second half a different team. Now they started engaging with their opponents instead of standing off. They were now scrapping for everything.
Donie Fitzgerald replaced midfielder Niall Kennedy with Richard Murphy switching from wingforward to partner Darragh McEvoy. Though Eire Og were to stretch their lead in the third quarter with points by Bryan Carberry, McCormack and Eoghan Ruth, the Wicklow men were now enjoying an increasing slice of the play.
Three bad wides from frees by Matty Byrne and Tommy Kelly looked as if they could prove costly and Paudge McWalter saw his effort for a score glance wide off the goal post. But the St. Patrick's goalie Colm Byrne made a vital save from a scorching shot from Eire Og midfielder Sean Gannon.
In the intense heat of battle, players squared up to each other on a number of occasions, but now the St. Patrick's players were standing toe to toe with their opponents. Neither team was prepared to give ground.
Crucially from a St. Patrick's perspective, Darragh O'Sullivan was running the show. Operating a roving role out around midfield, he was sweeping up ball over the place and keeping Eire Og on the back foot a lot of the time.
Paudge McWalter was turning in a big shift, the inside backs were solid. St. Patrick's had a great final quarter. Matty Byrne rediscovered his free taking form, O'Malley pilfered another point off good work of Paul Earls and Donie Fitzgerald, and Darragh O'Sullivan got on the scoresheet, a rare bonus for him.
After 54 minutes St. Patrick's had clawed their way back to parity 1-7 apiece. Again it was all to play for. Nervous Eire Og were dipping constantly into the bench for an antidote.
St. Patrick's only made two substitutions for the entire match, compared to seven changes by Eire Og. It was a vital straw in the breeze of who now had the more settled side, the team who was playing with the greater confidence and composure.
With Darragh O'Sullivan driving the Wicklow champions on, Tommy Kelly gave them the lead with less than three minutes to go. Eire Og called their goal-scorer Simon Rea ashore and replaced him with Cormac Mullins
Eire Og were now the ones fighting for survival. They applied the pressure, St. Patrick's defended stoutly. The one thing St. Patrick's did not want was to concede a free within range.
It happened. We were three minutes into injury time. The distance looked a bit long, it was a pressure kick no doubt, but Eric McCormack showed nerves of steel as he banged over the equaliser for Eire Og to send this contest to extra time – 1-8 apiece.
St. Patrick's were full of beans. Anxious Eire Og continued to ring those changes. In the first minute of extra time, Matty Byrne turned the screw by pointing St. Patrick's back into the lead.
Five minutes later Eric McCormack came to the rescue of the Carlow champions yet again, he fired over a smashing point from the right touch-line. The teams were deadlocked at 1-9 apiece.
Two more minutes on and Austin O'Malley fired a cracking shot to the far corner of the net after being picked out by Darragh O'Sullivan. Bernard Hennessy pulled a point back for Eire Og while Tommy Kelly was short with a 45 for St. Patrick's, landing his kick into the safe hands of Eire Og keeper Robbie Moore. Yet St. Patrick's started the second period of extra time in front by two, 2-9 to 1-10.
Paul Earls put the home team a goal ahead inside two minutes of the restart, wisely opting to punch the ball over the bar from a lay off from Paudge McWalter.
Still the battle was tight, it was tense. Just how nerve wracking we learned moments later when Derek Hayden brought another crucial save from Colm Byrne. Mark Fitzgerald kicked a point for Eire Og before he was called ashore and Bryan Carberry came back on.
It is often said that two points is a dangerous lead to defend. Wicklow can testify to that in a dramatic end to an equally dramatic game of football. Eric McCormack very nearly spoiled the party for the Saints with his lead goal with minutes left, but the Wicklow men showed their mettle when they hit back immediately with Paul Earls' winner.
Scorers for St. Patrick's: Austin O'Malley (2-2), Matty Byrne (0-4 frees), Paul Earls (1-2), Dara O'Sullivan (0-1), Tommy Kelly (0-1).
Eire Og: Simon Rea (1-0), Erick McCormack (1-6, three frees and 45), Murtough Ware (0-1), Bryan Carberry (0-1), Eoghan Ruth (0-1), Bernard Hennessy (0-1), Mark Fitzgerald (0-1).