SIXMILEBRIDGE 4-9 EIRE ÓG 1-8 NIALL GILLIGAN earns his crust as an auctioneer, but before the start of yesterday's Clare County Hurling final, he would have had a difficult job in selling himself as a going concern to the Clare hurling public.
The 24-year-old was under the spotlight after recent poor displays for Sixmilebridge in the championship ... and he knew it.
Never mind that 'Bridge coach Paddy Meehan and his team-mates had confidence in him; the All-Ireland winner had a job in keeping the bad reviews from affecting him for this final.
And how did it turn out? Brilliantly for Gilligan and the 'Bridge, and far easier than they might have expected beforehand.
Sixmilebridge came to Cusack Park with the memories of defeat in last year's final haunting their dreams, and were up against the Eire Óg club of Ennis who were seeking the first football/hurling senior championship double in Clare since the late, lamented Ennis Dalcassians did it in 1929.
No matter that Eire Óg were the surprise packet of the Championship. Their place in the final was deserved and they were inspired by their footballers' win last week.
Cometh the hour, however, cometh the man - or men in this case. Niall Gilligan turned the match into a personal triumph, scoring a goal and seven points from his full-forward position, with five of the points coming from frees which he struck beautifully.
At the other end, Clare goalkeeper Davy Fitzgerald was fired up for his own day of destiny. At 28, the diminutive 'keeper has won virtually every honour in the game. People were asking him had he still got the appetite. The answer was an resounding ``yes''.
Fitzgerald burst out of the tunnel like a greyhound out of traps before the game, ran down to the goal and blasted a ball to the net. He was a dynamo of energy and commitment. And what a game he had - scoring a penalty, saving a penalty and inspiring his team-mates, particularly Gilligan.
Gilligan, who was voted `man of the match' said afterwards: ``I felt very nervous coming into this game. My form was poor through the last year, and I knew what people were saying. Paddy Meehan and the people close to me gave me a great boost, but it was different outside.
``I've learned a lot from this. I worked hard to get my mind and attitude right for this game. Davy Fitzgerald is an expert at that and it's great that it came right today.''
It all ended in happiness at the finish, but the eventual winners looked nervy and tense in the opening ten minutes.
Eire Óg settled slightly better and inside five minutes, Cathal Egan and Fergus Flynn had put them two points ahead.
However, the break the 'Bridge needed came after 14 minutes when they won a penalty after lively centre-forward Martin Conlon was hauled down as he raced for goal. Davy Fitz ran the length of the field to take, and score, the penalty.
That goal sparked 'the Bridge into life and during the closing stages of the half Gilligan rattled over four points to give them a 1-5 to 0-5 lead.
And the second half had hardly started when Gilligan struck for a vital goal following a long clearance out of defence. ``I wasn't sure where it came out of, but once I got the ball my first instinct was to go for goal. I was a bit surprised that I got clear but then I just hit it and it went in,'' said Gilligan.
Just six minutes later came the goal that killed the game, and it arrived in innocuous fashion. 'Bridge wing-forward Brian Kennedy whipped in a daisy-cutter from 25 yards which surprised everyone, even the umpires who were slow to raise the green flag.
Once Sixmilebridge scored their fourth goal three minutes later - a fine individual effort by Martin Conlon - it was effectively all over for Eire Óg. They scored a few more points, but couldn't pierce the wall of yellow and blue shirts in front of Davy Fitzgerald until four minutes from time when Stephen McNamara fired in a superb low shot. It was too little, too late.
It might have been different if Fergus Flynn had scored his 41st minute penalty, but he was denied by Fitzgerald.
``I didn't think it was a penalty, but once it was given we knew we had a job to do,'' he said. Flynn blasted for the top left hand corner of the net, but Fitzgerald got a touch to deflect it for 65, which was missed.
An emotional Paddy Meehan said afterwards: ``We didn't get enough ball to Niall Gilligan in the first half and I felt their half forwards were getting too much space. We decided we would move the ball faster and along the ground as much as possible to our full-forward line, and Niall's goal after half time really got us going.''
SCORERS - Sixmilebridge: N Gilligan 1-7 (0-5 frees), D Fitzgerald, M Conlon, B Kennedy, 1-0 each; A Mulready, J Reddan 0-1 each. Eire Óg: S McNamara 1-1, F Flynn 0-3, C Egan, T Corbett 0-2 each.
SIXMILEBRIDGE - D Fitzgerald; K McInerney, J O'Connell, W Kennedy; A Mulready, P Hayes, D Murphy; J Reddan, C Chaplin; B Kennedy, M Conlon, R Conlon; B Culbert, N Gilligan, J Chaplin. Subs: R Liddane for R Conlon (50 mins); A Chaplin for A Mulready (57 mins).
EIRE ÓG - M Barry; D Barry, R O'Brien, B Piggott; M Fitzgerald, F Flynn, R Cooney; T McNamara, D Tobin; C Egan, B Keating, B Nugent; M Kelly, S McNamara, T Corbett. Sub: F Corey for T McNamara (47).
REF - K Walsh.