Wednesday 13 December 2017

All's 'Mell' that ends 'Mell' as Plunketts crack the combination

JOHN SAVAGE at the Gaelic Grounds

YOU could almost reach out and touch the still raw emotion as Oliver Plunkett's tears turned from sorrow to joy on the hallowed turf of the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday afternoon.

Somewhere up there the legendary Frank 'Snag' Taaffe was no doubt already looking down fondly upon another momentous day for his beloved club, and at times in the second half he may even have been tempted to summon the Man Himself over for a quiet 'word'.

Whether he called in a Divine favour or not, the former Louth great was the inspiration as the Mell men survived a lengthy onslaught from hot favourites O'Connell's/St Joseph's/Stabannon Parnells to lift the Fr Larry Murray Cup for only the third time in their 70-year history.

A suggestion made some weeks ago by former Dublin boss Pillar Caffrey to don armbands expressing just one word of personal inspiration may have seemed a bit daft at the time, but when Frank passed away last week it all made perfect sense. A discreet piece of tape wrapped around the wrist of each and every player simply read 'Snag' and when they had to dig deep within themselves the Plunkett's boys didn't have to look too far for encouragment.

At times they certainly needed a bit of inspiration, not just on Sunday, but for a morale-sapping 10 weeks since dispatching St Mary's in the semi-finals of a minor championship that very nearly descended into complete farce in the meantime.

But in the end the Louth Minor Board and both sets of finalists refused to let that happen, the former putting on a show worthy of the occasion and the latter for ensuring it was a thrill-a-minute ride for what was a very decent crowd at the Gaelic Grounds.

The November pitch ensured it was a hard slog for both camps, but in some small, but very important way it was the Plunkett's who showed the greater desire to muck in and scrap out a victory that few had envisaged before throw-in.

They got their tactics spot on too, with Tadhg O'Brien detailed to pick up Robert Quigley and the tenacious Padraig McHugh assigned to Cian Doyle. The combination side's star turns both failed to score from open play, which could well be a first at any level they have played together this season.

Aside from a couple of early Criag Doherty points and a second-half goal from Shane McQuillan, the mid-Louth men failed to score from open play and given all the possession and territory they commanded in the second period, that statistic ultimately proved their undoing.

However, one other lone stat played just as big a role in their demise and it arrived with exactly ten minutes of normal time left on the clock - Oliver Plunkett's only score of the second-half. Crucially it was a goal brilliantly dispatched by a determined Luke Haggins, who for all the world looked second best to reach a Kenneth Hurley pass, but somehow got there first and finished first time past Jordan Mackin.

It was his second 'soccer' finish of the day with his first-half volley arriving at a crucial stage too, ensuring Plunkett's made their second quarter superiority count with a five-point half-time lead.

They had started very nervously as the combination side laid siege to the Hospital goals for the opening five minutes, but crucially had only a Criag Doherty point to show for their efforts.

When they finally settled Plunkett's rattled off two points from two attempts at the other end as Haggins and wing back Daire Fanning found their range from a free and play respectively.

Doherty levelled matters at the end of the first quarter, but Plunkett's completely bossed proceedings up to half-time and with a little more luck in-running may well have retired with more to show for their efforts.

They found goalkeeper Mackin in inspired from saving from Hurley and Josh Cormican, but 1-1 from Haggins and another point from the equally impressive Aaron Kirwan ensured quite a bit of breathing space at half-time as they retired with a 1-4 to 0-2 lead.

A backlash from their talented opponents was always likely, but when Doyle rattled the crossbar after just 40 seconds and two more wides followed in quick succession you had to wonder if a superior force was guiding Plunkett's.

Yet it was some good old-fashioned backs-to-the-wall defending that prevented their opponents from opening their second-account, but when that elusive first score did arrive it was just what the doctor ordered -a well-worked and dispatched goal from McQuillan.

A free from Doyle closed the gap to the minimum as the favourites finally threatened to live up to their billing, but Haggins was having none of it and his goal rendered two further frees from Doyle meaningless.

A very conservative two minutes of injury-time were allotted, but referee Gerry Connor only added one minute and thirty five seconds.

It didn't matter. This was Oliver Plunkett's day and coming at the end of such a poignant week, it's one they will never forget.

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