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Wednesday 22 November 2017

Nolan nicks it at the end for Laragh

GAA: Laragh 1-09 Kilcoole 0-11

Damien Hanlon and Peter Merrigan lift the cup.
Damien Hanlon and Peter Merrigan lift the cup.

Brendan Lawrence at Joule Park, Aughrim

Move over in the bed there, St. Kevin, because St. Decky is going to be climbing in beside you fairly lively after the former Rathnew manager guided Laragh to a magical victory in the Boom Platform Hire Junior 'A' football final against Kilcoole in Joule Park, Aughrim, last Saturday evening.

"There's only one Decky Byrne, there's only one Decky Byrne", sang the jubilant Laragh players after joint captains Peter Merrigan and Damien Hanlon had lifted the cup. How right they are?

Sadly, from a sporting perspective, there can also, ultimately, only be one winner, and, having witnessed this huge battle, fought in an electric atmosphere, another day out between these two teams would have been welcomed by each and every person who had the privilege of being present in Joule Park, Aughrim, on Saturday, September 30, 2017.

Oh, if only all days in the county grounds could be like this. A raucous, colourful, wonderful crowd. Two gallant, honest and totally committed teams. A carnival atmosphere, fine football, some beautiful scores, pleasant weather and not a hint of nonsense or tomfoolery or cynicism or negativity; last Saturday was just one of those magical days you don't forget.

27 years. Say that out loud. Try and get a sense of that stretch of time. 27 years. Many of the Laragh and Kilcoole players weren't even born and those that were had other things on their mind other than Junior A championships. A generation of people have passed on in that time, wars have been fought, the world has changed in endless ways. 27 years.

Try and imagine 27 Januarys or Februarys where a group of men will have met in that beautiful GAA pitch in Laragh and knocked the last dusty remnants of the previous year off their boots, cast the ruined dreams from the previous championship into the bin and declared that this year would be theirs.

27 springs of hard training and fiery league encounters in places like Knockananna or Kilbride or Kilcoole or wherever else. 27 build ups to championships. 27 years of collective desire, community desire, community hope. 27 summers of hard ground and fast football. 26 championships of "if only" and "what if" and "ah ref" and "not again" and "it wasn't to be". 27 years of want, of hope, of need.

27 journeys from the village of Laragh to the championship fixture, usually Aughrim. Away out of the village and over the bridge and up around that bend and on to Rathdrum. The dash up the straight mile and down into Aughrim and you make that sweet right turn and there she sits, the county grounds. 27 years.

26 years of tails between the legs, dreams dashed, of returning over the bridge and up to Lynham's to pick and squabble over the championship carcass until someone would say, "Next year, lads, next year". And the days and weeks would pass and the hurt would heal and over the wound would grow a hope and in the belly would be lit a fire that would grow and drive them back to the dressing rooms in Laragh with the taste of Christmas still in their mouths and the midges and warm summer evenings seeming a lifetime away. 27 years.

But not this year. Decky Byrne. There's a name and a half. Something stirs in the gut in Laragh. Sometimes people just need something and someone to believe in. Laragh believed in Decky Byrne. Decky Byrne believed in Laragh. Decky Byrne doesn't need to prove himself to anyone. Decky Byrne has done it on and off the field. Decky Byrne is a winner.

The championship unfolds in the manner of the majority of Junior A championships in Wicklow. Scoring forwards cause damage, teams take scalps, teams slip up, momentum is gathered, momentum is lost and, all of a sudden, it's semi-final time and Laragh are there against Valleymount and Kilcoole face Baltinglass.

Danny Kavanagh produces pure magic on top of a superb team performance and Kilcoole take their place in the decider. Decky Byrne has to stop Valleymount and he uses Steve Olohan as a sweeper. It works. Valleymount never reach the heights they did in the earlier games and Laragh deservedly march on. They're up against it, though. Kilcoole have men like Vinnie Quigley, Ronan Keddy, Matt Gilbert, Lee Dutton and the talented Danny Kavanagh.

Championship final. 180 seconds gone and one of the players of Laragh's summer is lost to a black card. Gary Cullen gone. Another year and that might have been the beginning of the end. Not this year. No way. Rally the troops. Keep fighting, Stick to the plan. 24 minutes on the clock. Keith Lawler gone to a black card. Disaster.

"At half-time we had a look at ourselves and we said, "We can't let this slip"", said John Nolan after the final whistle. "Pressure was on. In fairness to Kilcoole, they had played a great game, they put us under savage pressure. We always knew that we had it in us and when Myles got the goal there at the end and put us back on level terms.....".

"It started to look (before the goal) that things were going against us but we earned our luck in the end. I think what Decky brought was just that extra bit of belief. I have to give massive credit to John Begley last year and over the last couple of years. He brought us on massive. We won the Division 3 league under him last year. Decky just brought us up another step. Himself and Tommy, they always believed in us, we knew that they believed we could do it. And we learned from our losses. We lost a few games in the league, we lost to Kilcoole and Valleymount in the championship but it was those games that we learned from, we didn't let the heads go down, we looked at ourselves, we listened to the boys, they knew what we had to do, we put in the work and we got our rewards today.

"You can't question Decky Byrne, you can't question Decky Byrne, that's one thing you have to say," he added.

A second half of pure drama and tension and noise and colour and Laragh are still alive with minutes to go. One of the legends of Laragh GAA Club, Fergal Olohan, said that the players always said they would never give up.

"It was tough going. Once we got to half-time not being four or five points down we had a chance. We knew we were fitter. We're a very fit team. We're flying at the minute. We came out then, hoping that we'd get the next score and we hit four wides in a row and then we started to think that maybe it's not going to be our day. We always said we'd never give up, fight to the end. The heart in this team is savage," he said.

And heart is what won it in the end. The heart of Steve Olohan, slogging it out all day in front of Danny Kavanagh, his natural flair and talent stunted and stymied so he can play the sweeper role to protect Peter Merrigan. Decky Byrne releases Steve as the minutes tick away. Up the field he goes and fires over a mountainous score. The lift that score gave to the Laragh team was enormous.

"The thing Decky Byrne instills in us is to never, ever give up," said Myles Conway after the game. "We were three points down at half-time, missing two key players, and he said, "Look it, everyone is against you, take that attitude going in, never give up, never stop fighting", and I think it's proved in two or three big results this year, where two or three years ago we might have folded and lost games, to come back and win it by a point, this is my dream come true," he added.

Conway was huge in the winning of this game. With Olohan unshackled, Laragh started to up the workrate out the field. Olohan wins the ball inside his own 45. He handpasses to Davie McDonald who feeds Mark Miley, back to Olohan and he looks up like a hawk looking out over the landscape in search of prey. Off goes the high ball, it breaks and rolls out in front of Damien Hanlon. Hanlon pulls, Kilcoole lead by 0-11 to 0-08. Conway waits, cleverly, edge of the square. Glen Tighe saves Hanlon's shot with his foot. The ball spills to Conway. Instinctively you're thinking, 'just swing the leg, man, swing the bloody leg'. But Myles Conway ain't no fool. He bends and picks up the ball. It looks like he's going to be blocked. He has two Kilcoole defenders and Tighe in a direct line between him and the goals. He swings the left and drives low and hard and even the despairing dive of a defender can't stop it from finding a home in the back of the Kilcoole net.

The Laragh crowd lose their minds in the stand. The sides are level. Back come Laragh. Hanlon to Conway and he wins a free. 30 out from goal, wrong side for a right-footed kicker, the noise is incredible. There's nothing anyone from Laragh can do now except trust in John Nolan. Wearing the number 10 jersey. He has sweated and bled for Laragh this year and for many more years before that. He takes the ball and settles into his routine. He stands steady, one hop, two hops, two steps and bang, off she goes, and you know immediately from the crowd, you know it's going over the black spot, it's there, the umpire goes for the flag. 27 years, lads, 27 years.

Hanlon misses a 45. A handling error costs Kilcoole as they plough forward looking for the equaliser. Surely the GAA gods won't be so cruel as to inflict the pain of a championship final defeat for the second year running on the warriors from Kilcoole.

Back come Kilcoole again. A high ball from Gilbert seeking Kavanagh and who is there to break that ball only Steve Olohan. The ball breaks, Davie McDonald gathers and Noel Kinsella sounds the final whistle.

It's all over. 27 years. Joy, pride, love, honour, honesty, truth, and hope, it all pours out of the Laragh players and supporters. The stand erupts. John Nolan and James Nolan are on the fence celebrating with the fans, flags are waving, players are hugging, dancing, crying, laughing. 27 years. The famine had ended. St. Decky had shown the way. Laragh had followed. 27 years.

Move over in the bed there, St. Kevin.

Scorers - Laragh: John Nolan 0-06 (4f), Myles Conway 1-00, Steve Olohan 0-01, K Lawler 0-01, Liam McEvoy 0-01.

Kilcoole: Danny Kavanagh 0-04 (2f), Matt Gilbert 0-03 (3f), Lee Dutton 0-02, Declan Roper 0-01, Cormac Byrne 0-01.

Laragh: James Nolan; Brendan Ward, Peter Merrigan, Ciaran Byrne; Craig McCoy, Gary Cullen, Andrew Kenny; Damien Hanlon, Davie McDonald; John Nolan, Steve Olohan, Dan Power; Myles Conway, Mark Miley, Keith Lawler. Subs: Jamie Cullen for G Cullen (BC, 3min), Liam McEvoy for K Lawler (BC, 24min), Aran Lynham for D Power (H/T).

Kilcoole: Glen Tighe; Luke Reilly, Matt Mannix, David Kelly; Dara Keddy, Colm McGovern, Kevin Condon; Vinny Quigley, Ronan Keddy; Jack Bellamy, Matt Gilbert, Cormac Byrne; Lee Dutton, Danny Kavanagh, Declan Roper. Subs: Eoin Keddy for V Quigley (36min), Luke Evans for L Dutton (36min), Jordan Murray for J Bellamy (43min), Keith Reynolds for D Kelly (47min).

Referee: Noel Kinsella (Kilbride)

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