Classy Gaels survive late charge from brave Jocks
Dundalk Gaels 0-15 Naomh Mairtin 1-11
They trailed by eight points midway through the second-half, but Naomh Mairtin came within a whisker of keeping their Joe Ward dreams alive and wrecking Dundalk Gaels' quest for a first county final appearance for 25 years.
After a number of semi-final near misses, the Gaels edged over the finish line with barely a drop of diesel in the tank at The Grove, but their muted celebrations and the classy gesture of a guard of honour for their opponents as they left the field, put everything back into context after a frantic, nerve-wracking finale.
On a poignant and difficult day for the Naomh Mairtin club, and the GAA community as a whole, the Jocks may have come up short, but their disappointment will be fleeting and largely insignificant.
In the circumstances, the courage and strength of character they showed to take to the field, let alone summon such a gutsy comeback, was remarkable, and as he looked down, no doubt kicking every ball and tracking every run, their fallen friend and comrade Benny Reuilly would have been rightly proud.
The Gaels, of course, had no choice but to hold sentiment in check until the end, and they set about their task with a clinical efficiency in the opening half.
Their now familiar packed defence and slick counter-attacking gameplan worked a treat, particularly in the second quarter as they out-scored their opponents by seven points to two.
When the sides met in the group stages at the same venue, it was pretty much all over inside 12 minutes as the Jocks made a blistering, and ultimately, match-winning start.
So, it was perhaps understandable that Malachy O'Rourke's team occasionally ended up with 15 men behind the ball in the early stages, but that didn't curtail their attacking threat.
They lured the Mairtins up blind alleys, forcing hasty shots from distance against a stiffening breeze or turning play over, but when possession was secured they attacked in numbers and with purpose.
Their second score was a perfect case in point as an Eoghan Callaghan effort dropped short and 30 seconds later David McComish polished off a tasty move.
Eanna McArdle had opened the scoring inside the first minute and he converted a free to make it 0-3 to 0-1 on 10 minutes, cancelling out a superb Brian Berrill score from the tightest of angles.
McSorley and Sam Mulroy then traded a free apiece, but from there on the Gaels took a firm grip on the contest.
Their next four scores all arrived via open play as Sean McCann, McSorley with a double and David Moloney, stretched their lead to 0-8 to 0-2.
A McArdle free made it five points without reply, as the situation grew ever more ominous for the Jocks.
While they largely struggled to break down a well-drilled Gaels' defence, Conor Healy did get some joy down the left and he stopped the rot with a fine score.
But the Gaels continued to soak up pressure and break with purpose and further points from Chris Sweeney and Crilly, from a free, put eight points between the sides, 0-11 to 0-3.
Stephen Faulkner was relieved to see a shot drop onto his crossbar rather than under it, but the Mairtins did pull a point back before the break with Conor Whelan converting an injury-time free to make it 0-11 to 0-4.
The Mairtins needed a better start to the second period, but it was the Gaels who opened the scoring through Crilly to restore their eight-point cushion.
And that was still the gap by the end of the third quarter as a Whelan brace was cancelled out by a McArdle free and another fine effort from Crilly, making it 0-14 to 0-6.
Having already introduced JP Rooney and Francie McCullough late in the first-half, the Jocks took one last throw of the dice by bringing in Jamie Mulholland and sending Louth 'keeper Craig Lynch up to the edge of the square.
With the wind at their backs it was a sensible move and while he didn't score, Lynch's presence coupled with a black card for Gaels' full back Jamie Faulkner for dissent, certainly proved a factor in the Jock's brave late charge.
The enormity of what was now in their grasp no doubt contributed to the Gaels' wobbling on the home stretch too.
Three frees on the bounce from Mulroy (2) and Whelan closed the deficit to five, but a fine move, finished off by Barry Watters seemed to settle Gaels' nerves.
They were already calling for the full-time whistle when Wayne Campbell fired a Francie McCullough centre past Stephen Faulkner, but even that appeared to be a consolation for the Jocks.
But two points from successive Gaels' kick-outs from McCullough and Whelan cut the gap to the minimum.
They won the next kick-out too, but as Mick Fanning looked to create space the Gaels swarmed and while the Mairtins were calling for a free, it was the former Louth full back who was penalised for over-carrying.
And with that time ran out on the Jocks and their heroic comeback.
The Gaels indulged in a few brief hugs and high fives, but soon gathered for a moving tribute to Benny and his teammates.
The brave Jocks must dig deep and go again on Thursday when they face Dreadnots in the O'Donnell Cup final while the Gaels limber up for a Joe Ward showdown with Newtown Blues.
The 25-year drought is over - now for the 65-year famine!
DUNDALK GAELS: Stephen Faulkner; Oisin Murray, Jamie Faulkner, Peter McGinnity; David McComish 0-1, James Stewart, David Moloney 0-1; Derek Crilly 0-3 (1f), Sean McCann 0-1; Eamon Kenny, Sean Murray, Barry Watters 0-1; Eanna McArdle 0-4 (2f), Ger McSorley 0-3 (1f), Chris Sweeney 0-1. Subs: Jason Clarke for C Sweeney (47), Niall Hearty for J Faulkner (BC 52), Errol Boyle for G McSorley (25), Sean Fee for E McArdle (61).
NAOMH MAIRTIN: Craig Lynch; Paul Berrill, Mick Fanning, Thomas Sullivan, Paudie McDonagh, Eoghan Callaghan, Conor Healy 0-1; Wayne Campbell 1-0, Gavan Mooney; Stephen Campbell, Sam Mulroy 0-3f, Brian Berrill 0-1; Mark McCullough, Conor Whelan 0-5 (3f), Bryan McQuillan. Subs: JP Rooney for M McCullough 0-1 (21), Fra McCullough 0-1 for P Berrill (28), Jamie Mulholland for B McQuillan (47).
REFEREE: Anthony Briscoe.