Portlaoise bite back in 'dogfight'
A FAIRYTALE season finally ended for Longford's giant-killers in Portlaoise, but Emmet Og, Killoe certainly went down fighting.
Everything that is so magical about the GAA's equivalent of the FA Cup was to be enjoyed in this absorbing clash.
Both teams bravely defied the conditions to serve up a classic David and Goliath struggle, between the local heavyweights and record seven-time provincial champions against the champions of a county that has never had a single finalist.
The gritty underdogs, replete with megaphone-wielding cheerleaders, inspirational banners and what appeared to be half of Longford in the stand, actually led twice in the third quarter and repeatedly refused to let go of Portlaoise's ankles.
But the local side's vast experience finally helped shake them off, rattling over three points to one in the final eight minutes to reach their third final in nine years – where they will face Ballymun Kickhams.
Even at the death Killoe refused to quit, with Sean McCormack lofting a free into the crowded goalmouth in stoppage time to see what it might conjure.
But, as Portlaoise manager Mick Lillis noted, Portlaoise survived "the dogfight of all dogfights" and goalkeeper Michael Nolan made one vital intervention to inspire their narrow escape.
After 44 minutes, with the sides level for the fourth time, Longford county star Mickey Quinn made a marvellous run that split their defence apart and his clever pass, off the outside of his boot, put Mark Hughes through on goal.
But Nolan anticipated the move and got out brilliantly to block the shot.
Three minutes earlier, Killoe had dramatically seized the momentum at the expense of Portlaoise corner-back Cahir Healy. The Laois dual star was left holding his head in his hands when he mis-hit a line-ball deep in his own half, which Hughes gratefully intercepted and laid on for beanpole midfielder Simon Kiernan to palm to the net.
That made up for Portlaoise's 37th-minute goal, when a more accidental defensive deflection saw Barry Fitzgerald find Brian Smith with just the 'keeper at his mercy.
After ceding midfield earlier on, Emmet Og started to dominate in the third quarter and had they gone three points clear at that stage might have pulled off the shock of the club season. But the experience garnered by Portlaoise really stood to them in the final quarter.
After Killoe's second goal midfielder Adrian Kelly equalised and a Fitzgerald free quickly put them in front again.
Healy then redeemed himself by extending their lead to two and, in the last five minutes, veterans like Brian McCormack and Tipperary senior Hugh Coghlan won some pivotal frees and 'Bruno' also contributed a marvellous late insurance point.
Portlaoise had totally dominated the first 20 minutes but Emmet Og, profiting from a dropped retrieve by Brian Mulligan, got a Denis McGoldrick goal in the 17th minute that finally kick-started them.
Portlaoise responded impressively by pulling three clear again but Killoe centre-forward Ronan McGoldrick, in particular, took the fight to them and helped keep the gap to the minimum at half-time.
The conditions certainly weren't conducive to Portlaoise's usual fast, counter-attacking game but they totally overplayed the short game at times which often broke down against Killoe's admirably crowded defence.
"We had to totally try and change the way we play because of the conditions," admitted Portlaoise boss Lillis.
"They were coming down here on the back of two hard games whereas we had an easier game in Wicklow so they were more battle-ready than we were.
"In the end, it was going to be the team that made the fewest mistakes that would win it and we probably did that."
Emmet Og fans gave their heroes a standing ovation off the field and the McCormack cousins, Padraig and Joe, Quinn, Hughes and Ronan McGoldrick certainly warranted one.
They also booed referee Cormac Reilly off, which seemed harsh as he, like the players, did a good job in dreadful conditions. But losing manager Tommy McCormack had no quibbles.
"There are nine U-21s on our team, they're very young and to win the county championship (their first in 17 years) was a big ask," he reflected.
"But these guys came with a winning mentality, they've won since they were U-16s, and irrespective of how tight the situation they are in, they always find a way through it.
"Even at the end, I felt that if we could get the ball in there was another goal in us. If it was any other team bar Portlaoise we might just have stolen it but they're very experienced at this level.
"We were certainly an unknown quantity in Leinster but, having got so far, people will hopefully sit up and take a look at us now and say they're not a bad outfit at all."
Scorers – Portlaoise: B Smith 1-0, B Fitzgerald 0-3f, B McCormack, A Kelly 0-2 each, C Healy, C Boyle, B Glynn, P Cahillane (f) 0-1 each. Emmet Og: D McGoldrick, S Kiernan 1-0 each, R McGoldrick 0-2, D Mimnagh, M Hughes, S McCormack (f) 0-1 each.
Portlaoise – M Nolan; T Fitzgerald, B Mulligan, C Healy; K Fitzpatrick, K Lillis, C Boyle; A Kelly, H Coghlan; C Rogers, B Fitzgerald, B Glynn; P Cahillane, B McCormack, B Smith.
Sub: S Nerney for Boyle (57).
Emmet Og – C Burns; D Bennett, P McCormack, D Keogh; S Dowd, J McCormack, M Quinn; P Thompson, S Kiernan; D Mimnagh, R McGoldrick, E Clarke; D McGoldrick, M Hughes, S McCormack. Subs: R Keogh for Thompson (55), P Hughes for D McGoldrick (57).
Ref – C Reilly (Meath)