Tuesday 17 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Sunday afternoon thriller continues hurling's glorious year with quality coverage to match'

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Philip Mahony. Photo: Sportsfile
Philip Mahony. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

There have been some pretty fantastic sporting moments over the past week or so. Alexandre Lacazette's gorgeous finish against Liverpool, the terrific Breeders Cup victories of Enable and Accelerate, Jordan Larmour's terpsichorean tour de force try in Chicago, Red Star pulling off the biggest upset of the Champions League so far, Manchester United conjuring up memories of 1999.

But for sheer visceral excitement, roller-coaster reversal of fortunes and cliffhanger denouements, a relatively unglamorous fixture topped them all. It may well be that 2018 is the greatest year in the history of hurling. There have been so many classics we're almost sated at this stage. But there was still something special about last Sunday's Munster club semi-final between Ballygunner and Ballyea.

The Waterford champions had home advantage and were favourites but Ballyea tore into them from the start. They led by three at half-time thanks to a super solo goal from Niall Deasy, a player having the game of his life. Eight minutes into the second half the Clare side were six points clear and the favourites seemed to be floundering.

Enter corner-forward Conor Power, one of those rare forwards - Seanie O'Leary and DJ Carey were others - who always gives the impression that a goal is the first thing he thinks of when gaining possession. One shot whizzed narrowly over, another which followed an eel-like wriggle past his marker found the net. Game on.

With 11 minutes left the teams were level. It was nip and tuck from there on in, but when Pauric Mahony landed a super point to put Ballygunner two up with four minutes left the momentum seemed to be with them. Deasy had other ideas, stretching acrobatically to divert a high ball into the net. Two quick points and Ballyea led 2-17 to 1-17 as injury-time ebbed away.

Ballygunner were awarded a last-gasp free. We've seen this one before, the ball is lobbed in, there are a few oohs and aahs, then a clearance and a final whistle. In went the ball, aahs followed oohs and Ballyea knocked it away from goal. But before the whistle could go, Power retrieved it and showing remarkable coolness in the circumstances, lobbed a teasing ball across goal. Philip Mahony, up from the back, met it like Roger Federer putting away a smash to bring the game into extra-time.

More ups and downs. Ballyea quickly went two up. Ballygunner came back; 2-20 each at the end of the first period of extra-time. Players were cramping up. One of them, Ballygunner's Peter Hogan, summoned up one last effort for a point to put his team ahead and then promptly collapsed. This time the home team, leading by two with two minutes left, seemed to have it.

Ballyea pulled one back and Tony Kelly tried to hoist a long-range equaliser. It fell short but skidded treacherously on the surface and Stephen O'Keeffe just about knocked it out for a 65. Deasy pointed that - 2-23 each. Ten more minutes of extra-time.

If there was ever a game neither side deserved to lose it was this one. But scheduling constraints decreed there could be no share of the spoils. Kelly looked to have put Ballyea ahead again but his shot came off the post and Ballygunner broke from the clearance for Barry O'Sullivan to point. That seemed a crucial turning point and Ballygunner got home by 2-26 to 2-23.

Maybe it sounds slightly chauvinistic to suggest that the best sporting entertainment on offer last week came in a match between two parish teams played in front of 2,200 fans at an unlovely ground in Waterford. But if you'd seen the match you wouldn't disagree. This was an extraordinary epic, a marvellous coda to a magnificent season, an unexpected bonus as the evenings start to draw in and the nights grow colder.

Such classics would once have been witnessed only by those from the clubs involved. So not for the first time I felt immensely thankful to TG4 whose coverage of the club championships is the great unsung wonder of Irish sports coverage.

On Sunday, commentator Brian Tyers and analyst Donal O'Grady did their usual superb job. Tyers is passionate without indulging in the cringeworthy rhetorical antics which mar the performance of his RTÉ counterparts, O'Grady's understated and insightful contribution reminds you of what a commanding and reassuring presence he must have been in the Cork dressing room. This was not just sport but sports broadcasting at its best.

Always keep an eye on the club championships. You'll miss something great if you don't.

The Last Word: Wexford continue on their remarkable run

Wexford Youths' 1-0 victory over Peamount United in last Sunday's women's FAI Cup final was the latest triumph for a remarkable team. In the past five seasons Wexford have won four league titles, two cups and two doubles.

It seems fitting that the winning goal resulted from a combination between Rianna Jarrett and Katrina Parrock. Jarrett must be one of the most resilient individuals in Irish sport. The talented 24-year-old has suffered three anterior cruciate ligament injuries but keeps on bouncing back and was the league's top scorer with 27 goals.

Having recently suffered a broken toe, Jarrett was expected to miss the final but not for the first time she defied the odds to make a significant contribution. Goalscorer Parrock, a three-time All-Ireland camogie winner with Wexford and All Star in 2010 and 2011, has been something of a cup specialist with the winner in the semi-final against UCD and two against Cork City in the quarters.

* * * * *

It's hard to begrudge Red Star Belgrade their 2-0 victory over Liverpool. The Serbian League which Red Star represent is ranked 28th in Europe, between those of Bulgaria and Kazakhstan, and they entered the competition in the first qualifying round all the way back in June.

The 2-0 win over two legs against Latvian champs Spartaks Jurmala hardly promised great things, but Red Star kept chugging along, beating Slovakia's Sparta Trnava after extra-time and qualifying for the group stages proper with an away goals defeat of Red Bull Salzburg.

Their defeat of Liverpool is about as seismic a shock as you can get not least because, despite all the expensive attacking talent the visitors had at their disposal, the two goals came from Milan Pavkov who cost €300,000 and has yet to be capped for Serbia. Score one for the little guys.

* * * * *

I'm no fan of Jose Mourinho but the furore over his cupped ear gesture to the Juventus fans on Wednesday is ludicrous. As he pointed out himself, the home crowd had been taunting him all through the 90 minutes and can hardly get the hump if the opposition manager has a small go back. That Mourinho would have had an almighty crib if someone had done the same on his home turf doesn't make the hoo-hah any less daft.

It's interesting to compare this synthetic outrage storm with the apparent lack of concern being shown about the revelations by the German magazine Der Spiegel of how Manchester City systematically cheated UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations. By rights City should be thrown out of European competition yet there seems to be a reluctance to face up to their particular brand of skulduggery.

Far better to bang on about Mourinho offending against some non-existent code of sportsmanship. Displacement activity they call it.

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