NEW kids on the block. First-time winners of a Galway senior title, no history of major success, and yet St Thomas' added to a winning tradition of Tribesmen clubs in semi-final replays.
No Galway club has ever lost an All-Ireland semi-final replay. By the same token, no Antrim club has ever won one. And at St Tiernach's Park in Clones, the brash newcomers powered their way to a St Patrick's Day showdown against Offaly's Kilcormac-Killoughey.
The eight-point margin might suggest a handy win for St Thomas', but you can forget that idea very quickly. This was rip-roaring, toe-to-toe, high-octane hurling for the hour. Space and time for extravagant stylish execution was not accessible. Every ounce of possession was hard earned.
Heroic blocks were made at both ends. Passions boiled over. Players at times fist-pumped and celebrated the mere winning of a free as if they had scored a goal – and weren't shy of getting in opponents faces' and letting them know it either.
The opposing managers had a little shoulder-joust at half-time as players scurried down the tunnel shouting and urging fans to make more noise, which they did.
A couple of messy mini-melees erupted in the second half, and referee James Owens brandished the yellow card eight times, three for St Thomas' and five for Loughgiel. But at the end, Loughgiel had to accept that their ambitions to retain the title were over. They had emptied themselves of every ounce of strength and passion and fell short.
Loughgiel's ace marksman Liam Watson opened the scoring with a free in the second minute, but between that and their second score – another free by Watson in the 12th minute – they missed four attempts at goal.
Watson, Benny McCarry and Eddie McCloskey hit wides, while Shay Casey had a near point-blank effort superbly blocked.
Crucial moments, indeed, because, after that ropey early period the St Thomas' defence, ably marshalled by skipper Robert Murray, Sean Skehill and Darragh Burke, learned their lesson and were not opened up as easily again.
St Thomas' manager John Burke admitted: "We were lucky. They probably got three goal chances in the first five or six minutes and if they'd got a couple of those we'd have been chasing the game.
"But we never panicked. We kept our composure. In the second half, any chances we got, most of them went over the bar. The backs played extremely well. They were absolutely super, the way they man-marked their men and closed down the spaces."
Leading by 0-5 to 0-2 with three minutes of normal time left in the first half, St Thomas' were rocked back by three Loughgiel points by Watson (two frees) and James Regan, but Eanna Burke scored one in reply with a magnificent strike from over 45 metres.
At 0-6 to 0-5 as the sides lined up for the second half, it was anybody's game. Loughgiel manager PJ O'Mullan had his men primed for a huge performance. It didn't happen as planned. His players never folded, and continued playing with fire and fervour, but only two points scored in the second half, both by Watson, tells its own story.
O'Mullan was gutted, but had no complaints, saying: "They're a good side, and worthy finalists.
"They are the best team we've played. I would have no qualms in saying that. It's just hard to take. We're disappointed, and it hurts."
The rival managers had no hard feelings about their confrontation at half-time.
"That happens," said Burke. "There's a lot at stake. Everybody's emotions are high. There's no point being on the line or around hurling if you don't have a bit of emotion."
Man of the match was 22-year-old corner-forward Bernard Burke, a second cousin of the manager, who had six sons on duty yesterday – Cathal, Darragh, Sean, Kenneth, David, and Eanna, who came on as a first-half sub.
The impressive Conor Cooney kept the scoreboard flashing with six points, four of them from frees and one a '65', but Bernard Burke's passion and will to win carved out some crucial scores in that second half.
"It means the world," said Bernard after his side had sealed their place in the final. "At the start of the year we didn't even expect to get to the county final in Galway. We've all grown up together. It's a very small parish and we're all close-knit."
Scorers – St Thomas': C Cooney 0-6 (4f, 1 '65'), B Burke 0-4, K Burke, D Burke, E Burke, R Murray, J Regan 0-1 each. Loughgiel Shamrocks: L Watson 0-6f, E McCloskey 0-1
St Thomas' – P Skehill; C Burke, R Murray, S Skehill; E Tannion, D Burke, S Burke; K Burke, D Burke; S Looney,C Cooney, J Regan; A Kelly, R Murray, B Burke. Subs: E Burke for Tannion (25), G Murray for K Burke (44), D Sherry for Kelly (55).
Loughgiel Shamrocks – D Quinn; P Gillan, N McGarry, M McFadden; J Campbell, M Scullion, J Campbell; B McAuley, T McCloskey; L Watson, D Laverty, E McCloskey; B McCarry, J Scullion, S Casey. Subs: O McFadden for McAuley (41), S Dobbin for Laverty (47).
Ref – J Owens (Wexford)