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Monday 21 April 2014

Curran joy as Brigid's dig deep to slay mighty Cross

St Brighid's 2-7 Crossmaglen 1-9

In the densely packed area beneath the stand Shane Curran, St Brigid's' veteran goalkeeper, unspooled little bandages off his fingers and spoke about courage and need and the utter determination of a group of players not to leave another game behind them.

In the densely packed area beneath the stand Shane Curran, St Brigid's' veteran goalkeeper, unspooled little bandages off his fingers and spoke about courage and need and the utter determination of a group of players not to leave another game behind them.

This wasn't a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but the magnitude of what the Roscommon champions had achieved couldn't be under-estimated. It was written in the joy etched all over Curran's face.

Twice before they had faced the might of the seemingly perennial Ulster champions at the business end of this competition and acquitted themselves well without being able to land a mortal blow. And while they were impressively restrained in the build-up to this semi-final, they would have endured the odd sleepless night over the winter thinking about Crossmaglen and the crushing blow a third defeat in seven years would have inflicted.

They got home ultimately, by the skin of their teeth, for a few reasons. They had set out their stall early to match Cross in the physical stakes and did so without straying over the edge. They hung in too during those times when Cross put together their brightest passages and, if Frankie Dolan's fortuitous deflected goal in the second minute was a hint that Brigid's enjoyed the breaks at crucial moments, they had to work like dogs to earn them.

Cross will have left for home dispirited. They got a few vital things right yesterday. Senan Kilbride had been a thorn in their side on previous occasions but this time he was well marshalled by James Morgan.

And Dolan, despite finishing with 1-3, was still only a sporadic influence on the game. Curb those two and Cross could be forgiven for thinking they'd take another giant leap towards history on St Patrick's Day. But it wasn't enough. Brigid's had other heroes to step forward.

The Ulster champions would be entitled to feel harshly treated by Maurice Deegan on several occasions, but the truth is they were short of their best and only their resilience and pedigree kept them alive until the death when it looked for all the world as if they'd take us into extra-time. Only Morgan and Jamie Clarke, oozing class, arguably reached the standards we customarily expect of them at this level.

There was never a moment, though, when you'd have confidently predicted that Crossmaglen were dead and buried, the stake planted firmly in their hearts. Dolan's early goal, a point and another by the lively Cathal McHugh had helped Brigid's storm into a four-point lead.

But then Paul Hughes popped up from wing-back to finish a move started by Martin Aherne and, sparked into life, Cross had pushed ahead within two minutes.

At the end of of the half you feared greatly for Brigid's. Not simply because they trailed by two points, but because their forwards, Dolan the most egregious culprit, had kicked a succession of bad wides and with the benefit of whatever breeze was blowing around Cusack Park, Kevin McStay's side should really have been in front. It wasn't the sort of position from which you felt the reigning champions would capitulate.

Brigid's enjoyed another lucky break shortly after when Kyle Brennan, on as a replacement for a subdued Oisin McConville, was gifted a gilt-edged opportunity to shake Curran's net but somehow twisted his shot wide of the post. That galvanised Brigid's, who struck with frees from Kilbride, growing in influence, and Dolan.

With 20 minutes left the sides were level and the huge Brigid's crowd in the stand began to believe. There were sporadic moments of good play. McHugh finished a nice move by fisting a point to push Brigid's ahead and then Dolan chipped over to give them some breathing space. But Cross wiped that out with a quick volley of points from David McKenna, Clarke and Aaron Kernan and, suddenly, the Ulster side seemed to be unfolding a script we had grown so familiar with over the years.

The defining moment came with three minutes of normal time remaining, though. A through ball landed in front of the Cross goal between Dolan and Paul McKeown and although Dolan got his boot to the ball first, his shot was scuffed and harmless looking until Conor McHugh's timely arrival to finish to the net. Lucky again, maybe, although Deegan appeared likely to award a penalty for a challenge on Dolan if the goal hadn't been scored.

Crossmaglen didn't die, of course. They lost Kyle Carragher to a red card moments later, but they never lost heart. Clarke's composure in the panicked dying moments was beautiful to withhold, kicking a point that laid the bare minimum between them and had everybody in Cusack Park thinking about extra-time. The chance to level matters came their way but Brigid's managed to swarm their defence and shut their opponents out.

They embraced victory with an enthusiasm that fitted the magnitude of the victory: McStay and his assistant Liam McHale rushing onto a field with, it seemed, the entire parish of Kiltoom for a party that was still in motion 30 minutes after the whistle.

"We've just beaten one of the best club teams in the history of the GAA," Curran said breathlessly beneath the stand. Then he checked himself. "But it's no good unless we go on and win the All-Ireland."

For a while yesterday, though, it seemed more than enough.

Scorers – St Brigid's: F Dolan 1-3 (0-2f), Conor McHugh 1-0, S Kilbride (2f), Cathal McHugh 0-2 each. Crossmaglen: J Clarke 0-3, P Hughes 1-0 A Kernan (1f) K Carragher 0-2 each, K Brennan, D McKenna 0-1 each.

St Brigid's: S Curran; G Aherne, G Cunniffe, P Domican; R Stack, D Donnelly, N Grehan; K Mannion, I Kilbride; D Dolan, R Blaine, G Dolan; S Kilbride, F Dolan, Cathal McHugh. Subs: E Sheehy for G Dolan (h-t), D Kelleher for N Grehan (47), Conor McHugh for Cathal McHugh (54), N Grehan for D Dolan (58).

Crossmaglen: P Hearty; P Kernan, D O'Callaghan, J Morgan; A Kernan, P McKeown, P Hughes; J Hanratty, D McKenna; S Kernan, O McConville, M Aherne; J Clarke, K Carragher, T Kernan. Subs: K Brennan for O McConville (24), A Cunningham for P Kernan (35), C Cumiskey for A Cunningham (58), M Boyce for D O'Callaghan (60).

Referee: M Deegan (Laois).

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