Vincent Hogan: Contentious call rescues 'Bridge
Kerins' last-gasp free forces thriller into replay
On winter's doorstep, a thundering Galway hurling final that flamed out inconclusively in Salthill.
Johnny Coen's 61st-minute penalty looked to have completed an epic escape for Loughrea, the favourites having trailed for most of a compelling hour. But referee Michael Dolan's late sanction for what he deemed a dubious handpass opened the door for Mark Kerins to dramatically secure a replay for Clarinbridge.
This was a million miles from the world of cut-glass ankles and absenteeism through damaged hair that passes for combat in the Premier League. It was manly and routinely edgy business, offering little scope for any of the 10,000 or so minds present to wander.
The 'Bridge, chasing only their second title, had been lightning quick from the blocks and their six-point lead (2-7 to 0-7) with 23 minutes remaining would have been a secure buffer against brittle opposition.
But, as Loughrea boss Joe Sweeney averred, the men in blue and gold don't quite fall into that category.
"In fairness to our guys, we were seven points down against Portumna in the semi-final, so we knew we could dig deep," said Sweeney. "There's a lot of emotion in that dressing-room right now. We probably got out of jail."
That remarkable semi-final recovery against the four-in-a-row-chasing champions gave them serious impetus coming into this final, but -- for long periods yesterday -- they looked a tired team. There's a lot of mileage on some of the Loughrea clocks and when, in first-half injury-time, Kerins knifed in for Clarinbridge's second goal, that mileage was the hot topic of conversation in the stand.
Kerins, now 32, was proving the go-to guy and finished majestically, having played one-twos with both Enda Collins and his own brother, Alan. The goal would have graced any stage and sent Sweeney's men to their tea with much to contemplate.
"We were thinking 'Jesus, we have to do something here!'" he reflected later. "Clarinbridge were tearing us asunder and that goal was a hammer-blow."
Paul Coen had sniped home the 'Bridge's first goal in the 21st minute, just after Loughrea 'keeper Nigel Murray made a vital intervention as Alan Kerins came torquing onto a beautifully flighted David Forde delivery. In terms of pace and appetite, the 'Bridge seemed to hold all aces.
Forde was mopping up an ocean of ball at centre-back, while Jamie Cannon was more than justifying his late inclusion on the wing. And in Mark Kerins, they had the game's most authoritative personality.
Yet, submission simply isn't written into the Loughrea DNA. Clarinbridge selector Tom Helebert, had a sixth sense of what was coming.
"We knew they would come back at us," he said. "These guys are battle-hardened; they were never going to let us run away with the final."
Coen, Gavin Keary and Johnny Maher were the main instigators of the fightback and yet Loughrea were still over-relying on the free-taking of Neil Keary.
With 18 minutes remaining, Murray's slide-rule puckout located Coen, now operating in midfield, for a lovely Loughrea score but, tellingly, it was only their third from play. Clarinbridge immediately responded with two Kerins points from placed balls and so, entering the final quarter, Clarinbridge had a 2-9 to 0-11 lead.
Then the griddle started spitting.
Two Keary frees and another Johnny Coen score brought things down to the narrowest margin and, desperate to escape, Clarinbridge made one last lunge for the jugular. Tom Regan spilled possession in the left corner of Loughrea's defence and, when the sliotar arrived into Eanna Murphy's hand on the edge of the 'square', a decisive goal seemed certain.
Yet Damien McClearn made a miraculous block and, though Mark Kerins nailed the subsequent '65', Loughrea were still breathing. The game was already in injury-time mind when Gavin Keary went tumbling inside the Clarinbridge 'square' and the impressive Coen blazed home a confident penalty. Incredibly, Loughrea led by a point. Dolan's late decision to give Clarinbridge that redemptive free stoked the ire of Loughrea supporters though, for neutrals, a reprise seemed a more than palatable option.
Helebert synopsised the business well. "It came down in the end to a few critical calls and I suppose it's always unfortunate when that happens in a final," said the former county man. "We knew we'd need that second goal if not a third to beat Loughrea and that's pretty much how it panned out.
"Having watched them play all year, I knew they make it very hard for our forwards to find space. All six forwards found it difficult to get anything after half-time.
"But it is what it is. A drawn match in a county final is always hard work, but we live to fight another day. And we'll be ready."
The minor final between Gort and Athenry also ended in stalemate and both replays are expected to be confirmed for Sunday week.
SCORERS -- Clarinbridge: M Kerins 1-9 (0-6f, 0-2 '65s'), P Coen 1-0, E Forde 0-2. Loughrea: N Keary 0-11 (0-10f), J Coen 1-2 (1-0 pen), J Maher 0-1.
CLARINBRIDGE -- L Donoghue, P Callanan, B Burke, C Forde, M Donoghue, D Forde, J Cannon, B Daly, E Collins, S Burke, M Kerins, S Forde, E Forde, A Kerins, P Coen. Subs: E Murphy for Collins (42), A Armstrong for Daly (55).
LOUGHREA -- N Murray, E Mahony, D McClearn, B Mahony, P Hoban, N Shaughnessy, V Maher, E Mahony, G Keary, J Coen, J Maher, J Regan, N Keary, J O'Loughlin, T Hoban. Subs: T Regan for E Mahony (half-time), K Colleran for J Regan (38), G Kennedy for Shaughnessy (48).
REF -- M Dolan (Kilconieron).