O'Brien backs gutsy Garrycastle to push Cross' to the limit
WHEN someone joked that Saturday's result was a bad one for Galway hurling, Anthony Cunningham quickly retorted that is was a "bad result for home" before gathering his gear bag and boarding the Garrycastle bus.
It was fitting that he should have the last word. Cunningham was one of the central characters of this extraordinary story that produced a Hollywood ending at Pearse Park on Saturday.
The St Brigid's clubman had trained the Westmeath champions Garrycastle to produce an astonishing second-half performance that secured a date with Crossmaglen on St Patrick's Day.
But the story that led to that conclusion was a superb advertisement for football. The general consensus around Pearse Park at half-time was that Roscommon side St Brigid's were in pole position.
They were two points up (1-6 to 0-7) thanks largely to Karol Mannion's penalty and would play with whatever advantage the swirling breeze offered on the restart. They also had the experience of a handful of All-Ireland semi-finals.
Garrycastle, meanwhile, were breaking new ground after winning their first Leinster title and they carried the burden of seven yellow cards into the second half, making it unlikely they would finish with the full complement.
Once more, it seemed that Croke Park beckoned for the Roscommon men, but only one of those predictions would come to pass.
Garrycastle did finish with 14 men when David O'Shaughnessy's Peter Stringer-style ankle tap on Mannion, as he bore down on goal, yielded his second yellow card with 13 minutes of normal time remaining.
Senan Kilbride pointed the resultant free to leave his side trailing by three points and set up a fascinating final quarter.
That Kilbride free was the Roscommon side's first score of the half, whereas in that period Garrycastle had tacked on 1-3 -- the goal coming from James Dolan's excellent finish.
Dolan was put clear by some excellent work from Paddy Mulvihill. The latter operated at centre-forward and, despite being the only starting Garrycastle forward not to score, he was the game's standout figure, mixing ball-winning skills along with guile to cut open St Brigid's.
The goal, along with an earlier Dessie Dolan free, put Garrycastle two points to the good. Dolan would add a further two frees before St Brigid's carved another goal opportunity.
Senan Kilbride's deft handpass sent brother Ian clear, but Cathal Mullin got enough on the ball to push it on to the post before it was scrambled out for a '45', which Frankie Dolan pulled wide.
Dolan was conspicuously quiet, but it would later emerge that he picked up an ankle injury in the warm-up and he was limping heavily leaving Pearse Park.
O'Shaughnessy's dismissal came next and the ensuing drama ramped up along with the volume. St Brigid's got back to within a point with three minutes of normal time left thanks to Cathal McHugh's second point.
Garrycastle then saw Dessie Dolan hit the post with a point attempt, while Gary Dolan blazed wide when a goal chance presented itself after an amazing pass from brother Dessie.
The Westmeath men had almost everyone behind the ball at this stage and when Conor Cosgrove pumped a hopeful ball forward, James Dolan's chase looked hopeless. But his presence was enough to distract St Brigid's goalkeeper James Martin and he was judged to have played the ball on the ground.
Dessie Dolan converted the free to put two between the sides in injury-time. There was enough on the clock for one last St Brigid's attack, but Conor McHugh's effort couldn't find its way through the mass of bodies in front of the Garrycastle goal in the last act of the game.
Afterwards, St Brigid's manager Noel O'Brien was gracious in defeat and confirmed he had stepped down after two years in charge.
"I think we just started too far back in the field. We tried to run the ball from our full-back line instead of moving the ball fast and quick into the full-forward line," he said.
"Maybe that was part of our problem, but I have to hand it to Garrycastle. They did not allow us to play the way we wanted to and they won a lot of ball around the middle of the field. When you are struggling to win ball in that area of the field, you are always going to struggle to win the match.
"But when we did have the ball, I just thought we should have moved it quicker and faster into the full-forward line. But look, for the next week there will be 'ifs' and 'buts', but you have to give credit to the opposition as well."
And O'Brien tipped the Westmeath side to go close in the All-Ireland final against Crossmaglen. "You can't beat hunger, drive and commitment and their passion was brilliant. They tackled hard and they tackled fair and they knocked us out of our stride a lot out there," he said.
"When you are in an All-Ireland final and you come up against Crossmaglen Rangers, you have got to be streetwise. But Garrycastle can handle Crossmaglen because they have that physicality as well, a lot of big guys out there and a lot of good footballers too.
"They are going to be in there with a right good chance. You look at the video of our game (the All-Ireland final) last year and we felt we could have sneaked it at the end. If they go in not fearing those guys, if they go in every bit as determined as Crossmaglen will be, they won't be far off it."
SCORERS -- Garrycastle: D Dolan 0-7 (5f), J Dolan 1-1, G Dolan, J Duignan, P Dillon 0-1 each. St Brigid's: S Kilbride 0-3 (1f), K Mannion 1-0 (pen), Cathal McHugh 0-2, N Grehan, I Kilbride, Conor McHugh, F Dolan (1f) 0-1 each.
Garrycastle -- C Mullin; M McCallon, J Gaffey, T McHugh; K Henson, D Harte, E Mulvihill; S O'Donoghue, D O'Shaughnessy; G Dolan, P Mulvihill, P Dillon; D Dolan, J Dolan, J Duignan. Subs: A Fox for McHugh (34), A Browne for Duignan (47), C Cosgrove for P Dillon (49), A Daly for G Dolan (59).
St Brigid's -- J Martin; R Kelly, D Donnelly, G Cunniffe; N Grehan, P Domican, I Kilbride; K Mannion, G Dolan; D Dolan, Cathal McHugh, E Sheehy; F Dolan, S Kilbride, Conor McHugh. Subs: J Murray for Kelly (41), P Kelly for Sheehy (54), D Kelleher for D Dolan (57).
REF -- J McQuillan (Cavan).