McStay warns his heroes to keep focus
ST BRIGID’S 2-7 CROSSMAGLEN 1-9
A STILL-breathless Kevin McStay distilled it down to simple perseverance afterwards.
Outside, St Brigid's players milled around the tunnel in Mullingar's Cusack Park, some looked in shock, others looked utterly shattered from the efforts of what had gone before.
Some on their team could even trace the roots of Saturday's result back to 2007 and the same venue when, under Anthony Cunningham, St Brigid's fell short against Crossmaglen.
There have been three more county and Connacht titles accrued since then and the men from Kiltoom drew on every drop of their experience in a gripping, enthralling game.
At half-time, most presumed we were witnessing another classic Crossmaglen march to victory. Despite playing against the breeze and starting without the injured Aaron Cunningham, they had eked out a two-point interval lead (1-5 to 1-3).
In that period, Cross' had recovered from the concession of an early, deflected Frankie Dolan goal and the loss of Oisin McConville to an injury he initially sustained at training last week. They applied their usual relentless pressure and, with Frankie Dolan and Senan Kilbride shanking straight-forward frees, it was all following a familiar pattern.
"You have to leave it behind you," McStay said of those missed frees afterwards.
"Yeah you'd love to be level or a point up at half-time, but (Frankie Dolan) is the most accurate footballer I have ever trained, that's the pressure of trying to beat Cross'.
"The positions he got the frees in were just on the edge of his distance; he didn't get a tap-over. He won't be happy with his overall game but he never stopped."
With the conditions in their favour in the second half, Cross' were expected to continue their march towards a third successive All-Ireland title, but the game turned seconds after the restart. Jamie Clarke put sub Kyle Brennan through one-on-one with veteran St Brigid's 'keeper Shane Curran, but his effort from close range flashed wide.
St Brigid's were lifted by that miss and took over the next 20 minutes. Johnny Hanratty had ran midfield for Cross' in the first half, but the Roscommon men seized control of that area and they hit four points on the bounce.
With just over 10 minutes to go, Frankie Dolan got their fourth successive score to edge his side two points in front and set up a grandstand finale. Cusack Park was hopping with the rare sight of Cross' in trouble and their marquee names responded. Having not scored for the first 20 minutes of the second half, they reeled off three in two minutes, with the resurgent David McKenna, Clarke and Aaron Kernan all pointing.
The Connacht kingpins were chasing shadows again and, in a rare foray forward, Darragh Donnelly dropped a point attempt short.
Soon afterwards, Senan Kilbride won a free near the sideline and he drilled it across goal. Frankie Dolan gathered but was fouled for what would surely have been a penalty. However, before Maurice Deegan could blow his whistle, Conor McHugh had stabbed the ball to the net.
Tempers flared in the aftermath and Curran fell to the ground holding his face. Kyle Carragher saw red after Deegan consulted with his umpires.
Cross' were up against it and when three minutes were displayed on the board, St Brigid's sensed a famous win. McKenna and Aaron Kernan combined again to let Clarke put the minimum between the sides, but the clock ran out on Cross'.
"Even though we're a very successful club, we've been beaten down the years plenty and we've had to recover from it," McConville said after emerging from a deathly-quiet Cross' dressing-room.
"It seems like the end of an era and all that, but we've been here before, it's not the end of anything. This club will always go on."
McConville admitted he may have played his last game, but wasn't going to make an immediate decision.
"I don't really know whether I'm going to come back or not. I have a lot of thinking to do. It's not just my decision any more. I have family at home and I've given a lot of years to it.
"Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed every single minute of it and when I do go there's plenty of young fellas there to come along. For me, that's the heartening thing; there's another generation coming."
In the other dressing-room, McStay didn't hide his admiration for Crossmaglen afterwards.
"They set the standard on so many different levels – physically, mentally and with the ability they have – so we had to match them in a lot of different places and, by and large, I think we did.
"I said to the players before we went out, 'If we can put away these greatest of champions then there is no question about you boys'. I sensed they had this character anyway, but they have shown us they have. It was a super effort, they never stopped."
St Brigid's are back in their second club final. Their neighbours in Roscommon, Clann na nGael, have lost five club finals, including four in a row from 1987-'90, and McStay was keen to underline that his side had won nothing yet.
"We said to them to get off the field. You can't help it when you take a massive scalp like that. We'll have them down to earth fairly quick.
"To win this and not perform in the final would be shocking, it wouldn't do justice to the champions we have beaten."
SCORERS – St Brigid's: F Dolan 1-3 (2f), Conor McHugh 1-0, Cathal McHugh, S Kilbride (2f) 0-2 each. Crossmaglen: J Clarke 0-3, P Hughes 1-0, A Kernan (1f), K Carragher 0-2 each, D McKenna, K Brennan 0-1 each
St Brigid's – S Curran; G Aherne, G Cunniffe, P Domican; R Stack, D Donnelly, N Grehan; I Kilbride, K Mannion; G Dolan, R Blaine, D Dolan; F Dolan, S Kilbride, Cathal McHugh. Subs: E Sheehy for G Dolan (h-t), D Kelleher for Grehan (46), Conor McHugh for Cathal McHugh (53), G Dolan for D Dolan (58).
Crossmaglen – P Hearty; P McKeown, J Morgan, P Kernan; A Kernan, D O'Callaghan, P Hughes; J Hanratty, D McKenna; T Kernan, S Kernan, M Aherne; J Clarke, K Carragher, O McConville. Subs: K Brennan for McConville (22), A Cunningham for P Kernan (35), C Cumiskey for Cunningham (58), M Boyce for O'Callaghan (59).
Ref – M Deegan (Laois)