OFF they trudged.
The bight lights of Croke Park on a Saturday night behind them. The sound of Cookstown players celebrating ringing in their ears. Each cheer, each laugh, a further twist of the knife. Some eyes cast down, tears in others, this was sport at its most cruel, its most painful.
For weeks, months, years even, they'd dreamed of representing their club in Croke Park. This was it. Final destination. The field of dreams. And now? Now they couldn't get out of there fast enough. They did as all good sports people do, they waited on the pitch, they shook hands, they watched the cup being held aloft, they listened as the Cookstown captain praised them for their contribution to the occasion. And like all truly competitive sports people they will have hated every single second of it.
To get here they worked and they worked and they fought and they fought and when they were knocked down they got straight back up again. They didn't do all that for second place. They didn't do all that for people to point out, as some sort of consolation, that they had county and provincial championship medals now. No they did it to lift this title, to become just the second club side (after Ardfert) to lift both the junior and the intermediate All Ireland titles.
They did it because they know that time is finite. They know that this era for the club is drawing to a close.
This was Eamonn Fitzmaurice's last game as a player for the club. Paul Galvin is 33. So is Trevor McKenna. A lot of players have a lot of football left in them, but with four starting players over the age of thirty and the same number again in their late twenties, the likelihood is that this was their last chance to make a splash on this stage.
The manner of the defeat will rankle too. They've lost games before, of course. What they've never had is an opposing team's supporters cheer and whoop as their team puts a string of passes together at the end of the match. Finuge don't do tame exits. They don't do beaten docket. Think back to the drawn county final. Lesser teams would have accepted defeat given the circumstances. Not Finuge. That's how they were able to make it this far.
Then there's those two sendings off to consider. They stick in Finuge's craw. Were they harsh? Yes. Can they have any complaints? Not really.
Maurice Corridan's first for a trip might have been harsh. It was also unnecessary. It left him a hostage to fortune. He might have been pulled into the bout of handbags that earned him his second yellow against his will, but that's irrelevant. It's a similar story for his younger brother Pat. He didn't aim to hurt his man when he swung his arm back in frustration, he didn't even make much contact, but, again, that's irrelevant. He left himself open to dismissal, when he was he could blame nobody but himself for it.
Even with fifteen men Finuge weren't going to win this game. Too much was going against them. After a decent opening spell – that wasn't rewarded with enough scores – their midfield began to creak. That had ripple effects on the entire team.
It meant that John Colbert and John Coleman had to move Eamonn Fitzmaurice from full-forward to midfield and with that decision fatally undermined their offensive strategy without really doing much to halt Cookstown around the middle.
Moving Fitzmaurice out fo the full-forward line left Finuge totally unable to cope there. Cookstown were rock solid at the back after that.
With full-back Stephen Monaghan in magnificent form, Finuge's remaining inside forwards, James Flaherty and Michael Conway, were completely outmuscled. It was two Finuge men up against three from Cookstown every time the ball went it. It wasn't even close. Monaghan and his corner-backs cleaned them out.
All of which put the Finuge defence under serious pressure. They'd clear their lines and within seconds the ball would be back down on top of them again. If Cookstown had a better set of forwards – and the ones they had weren't half bad – it could have been a hell of a lot worse for the North Kerry men. Despite resistance by guys like Chris Allen (with a second half block down on Ryan Pickering for a goal) and Pat Corridan, Cookstown were able to get the scores they needed.
Owen Mulligan scored one particularly delightful effort in the first half and the goal when it arrived was most impressive, with former Tyrone star Raymond Mulgrew setting up James McGahan and giving Cillian Fitzmaurice no chance whatsoever.
Mulgrew's presence on the pitch was instructive. A former inter-county man on as a second half sub. What Finuge wouldn't have given for a sub of that quality. Another Cookstown sub, Brian Mulligan, had a big influence on this game. None of Finuge's subs had a similar impact.
You might say that's because of when they came – when they were down to fourteen men – or you could say it was because Finuge didn't have the same strength in depth as their Northern rivals. It was a combination of the two.
It was a combination of a lot of things that did for Finuge. In hindsight they didn't have enough about them to defeat this Cookstown outfit. Fr Rocks were the slicker, stronger and more effective side. This was a niggily, tetchy, cynical, unimpressive game and they were better placed to prosper in that envoirnment than Finuge were.
This wasn't a game that will be spoken of with reverence in the years to come by neutrals the way the Kenmare v Castleknock curtain raiser will be.
When the sideline official lifted his board to reveal six added minutes were to be played all it did was extend the neutral's and Finuge's agony.
Down to thirteen men there was nothing they could do about their predicament. They just had to get through it. Listen to the Cookstown faithful cheer every Cookstown pass. Sit through the cup presentation and the speech. And trudge off, dejected, as soon as they possibly could.