Historic day for Ballyboden in Leinster thriller
Dublin champions hold out against wasteful Portlaoise to claim provincial club football crown for the first time
They partied late on the Firhouse Road last night as Ballyboden St Enda's celebrated their first senior football provincial title success, which had been achieved in the most dramatic circumstances in Tullamore earlier in the day.
The gaiety of the mood in the Ballyboden clubhouse had a mirror image in despair for Portlaoise, who were coming to terms with the unforgiving reality that they should, at the very least, have taken a high-quality encounter to extra-time.
It looked the ultimate in formalities when Paul Cahillane, normally so admirably accurate from frees, had a chance to kick the equaliser from a close-in free in stoppage time, only to miss the target with his effort from the hand. Portlaoise got one more chance to equalise but midfielder Conor Boyle pulled his shot wide.
Those two misses sentenced them to their third Leinster final defeat by Dublin clubs in four seasons, having lost to St Vincent's in 2013 and to Ballymun Kickhams a year earlier.
"It's devastating. You don't prepare for the eventuality of losing; you go in with a positive mindset, so it's hard to put it into words," said Portlaoise manager Malachy McNulty.
However, when he and the Portlaoise players analyse the game, they will be convinced that they left an eighth provincial title behind them.
They were bedevilled by a lack of precision at various stages and while, inevitably, Cahillane's late wide will figure high in the considerations, there were other misses too which they will greatly regret.
Chief among them was a lost goal opportunity in the 50th minute, at which stage the sides were level. Ballyboden goalkeeper Paul Durcan, calling on his vast experience with Donegal, fingertipped the ball onto the goalpost from a shot by Brian McCormack.
It was a typical intervention by one of the best 'keepers in the game but the task should have been made more difficult.
"I was lucky enough to get a hand on it," said Durcan with a touch of modesty.
He admitted that when Cahillane was lining up the free, he was already planning a long kick-out, believing that the sides would be level.
Instead, Ballyboden were defending a one-point lead, which they saw through to the finish.
It was the eighth time that the sides were separated by a point in a contest where the heavy ground conditions placed huge demands on the players' energy levels. Still, in marked contrast to previous days, it was dry and calm and, with both teams in adventurous mode, it provided excellent entertainment for the crowd of 3,663.
The positive mood was established in the sixth minute when Ballyboden corner-forward Andrew Kerin showed clever footwork before clipping a ground shot to the net.
Ballyboden led by four points after 10 minutes before Portlaoise's high work rate forced them back into the game.
They were a point adrift after 28 minutes but seconds later Cahillane timed his leap to perfection under a speculative lob and flicked the ball to the net past Durcan.
It looked as if the Laois champions would take a lead into the interval but their concentration wavered in the closing minute, allowing Michael Darragh Macauley to arrive unmarked in front of goal and he beat Graham Brody from close range.
It wasn't Macauley's first forward sortie but, once again, he wasn't tracked, a lapse which cost Portlaoise heavily.
"It was a crucial goal. When our goal went in, our first instruction was 'defence' to make sure there was no easy goal conceded," said McNulty.
Unfortunately for him, it wasn't heeded and a crucial advantage had been surrendered.
Still, it wasn't the losing of the game for Portlaoise, who enjoyed a lot of possession for long spells in the second half.
However, their finishing wasn't as clinical as it might have been, whereas Ballyboden were more economical off fewer chances.
Conal Keaney moved out the field and as well as winning a fair amount of possession, he used it intelligently.
For all that, Portlaoise moved a point ahead when Cahir Healy kicked an excellent point in the 56th minute, but it was to be their last score, whereas Ballyboden added two more points from Colm Basquel (57) and sub Aran Waters (60).
And so Ballyboden became the tenth Dublin club to land the Leinster title and will now look forward to an All-Ireland semi-final clash against Clonmel Commercials (Tipperary) or Tir Chonaill Gaels (London) in February.
They will do in the knowledge that they are improving all the time.
Team manager Andy McEntee set his side a target of extending their ambitions as far as possible after winning the Dublin title, a challenge to which they warmed enthusiastically.
"They just continued to work hard (after the Dublin final) and they did it again today. It mightn't have been pretty at times but they got the result in the end," he said.
He admitted that he was already thinking ahead to extra-time when Cahillane lined up the late free, only to watch in relief as the ball flew wide.
Earlier, he was especially pleased by the manner in which his side had responded so quickly to Portlaoise's goal.
"We came straight back down and got a goal. Against very good teams like Portlaoise, you have to take your chances when they come along," said McEntee.
He - and Ballyboden - are now in new territory as they head into an All-Ireland semi-final, but first there's a Christmas breather to enjoy.
Not that it's likely to be very long.
"The lads deserve a break, but not too much. I don't want to be soft on them," he said.
As the Portlaoise players trudged sadly from the dressing room, their manager was already dipping the day in perspective.
"Sport's a funny old thing - there are injustices in it, like life itself. But in four or five days, this will be old news. We'll lick our wounds and move on," said McNulty.
And so the season ends with the Leinster club title in Dublin for the seventh time in nine seasons. As with the inter-county scene, it leaves the other counties with plenty to think about.
Scorers - Ballyboden: A Kerin 1-2, C Keaney 0-4 (4f), MD Macauley 1-0, S Molony, C Basquel, A Waters 0-1 each.
Portlaoise: P Cahillane 1-2 (2f), B McCormack, B Smith,C Rogers (1f) 0-2 each, E Whelan, B Glynn,C Healy 0-1 each,
Ballyboden - P Durcan; B Dwan, S Hiney S Clayton; S O'Connor, D Nelson, R McDaid; MD Macauley, D O'Mahoney; D Davey, D O'Reilly, C Basquel; C Keaney, S Molony, A Kerin.
Subs: S Gibbons for Davey (34), A Waters for O'Reilly (42), S Durkin for O'Connor (47), D McCabe for O'Mahoney (62).
Portlaoise - G Brody; D Seale, J Delaney, C Healy; E Whelan, K Lillis, B Mulligan; D Cullen, C Boyle; G Dillon, B Smyth, B Glynn; B McCormack, P Cahillane, C Rogers.
Subs: C Dunphy for Cullen (13), R Maher for Dillon (52).
Ref - J Hickey (Carlow)