Portlaoise eventually put to sword by Saints
St Brigid's 2-16
HAS there been a finer game of club football this winter? More drama-soaked, more full-blooded, more edge of your frozen seat? If so, we must have missed it.
Thankfully, we were in Parnell Park yesterday to witness a wondrous roller-coaster ride that ended with St Brigid's through to their second AIB Leinster club football final after an eight-year break. "Oh, fantastic, fantastic," waxed joint-manager Gerry McEntee, who was also there at the tiller back in 2003.
Meanwhile, Portlaoise were left physically spent and emotionally shattered. "The devastation is shocking," admitted their joint-boss, Mick Lillis. "We've worked like Trojans with this game in mind."
The 2-16 to 1-15 scoreline, after 20 minutes of extra-time, hints at plenty of red-hot action amid the chill winds of Donnycarney ... yet it barely tells half the story.
The sides were level nine times. Portlaoise twice led by four points during their first-half pomp and could have been out of sight if all their goal chances were devoured.
But staring first-half adversity in the face has become a party piece out Blanch way. By half-time, improbably, the Dublin champions were level at 1-6 apiece.
By then, too, the initially struggling Sean Murray had relocated to centre-back ... cue a total transformation and it was apt that Murray's soaring catch in front of his own goal, in the death throes of extra-time, would initiate the counter-attack that culminated in Philly Ryan's goalscoring coup de grace. Ken Darcy had already edged Brigid's back in front before Ryan sealed the deal, and their reward is a final date with Garrycastle in Tullamore on Sunday week.
If anything, maybe match-fitness proved the ultimate tie-breaker. McEntee wasn't entirely sure, insisting they haven't trained hard "for months" because of their hectic schedule. Instead he lavished praise on how they "never give up".
To their credit, neither did Portlaoise. Twice, late in normal time, they teetered on the precipice of defeat. Firstly, they trailed by two only for skipper Craig Rogers (off the bench after illness prevented him starting) and Brian 'Bruno' McCormack to bring them level.
Then, after Barry Cahill had bulldozed through for a putative match-winner, Barry Fitzgerald revealed nerves of steel to nail a testing free with the last kick, well into the fourth minute of stoppage time.
Before extra-time, most debate focused on the controversial over-ruling of a 57th minute 'point' by Philly Ryan, when Brigid's already led by one.
The score was originally flagged over, only for Meath referee Cormac Reilly to over-rule his umpires. It was a marginal call, although a majority of the press box felt the point should have stood. Portlaoise fans, doubtless, would counter that Cahill looked to have over-carried before his subsequent score.
When it was all over, Brigid's could afford to be sanguine. "The linesman on this side said it was a point ... but the referee had to make a call," said McEntee, who didn't have a "problem" with it.
Onto extra-time, where a revitalised Portlaoise regained a two-point lead only for Brigid's to draw level after the first 10-minute period. By now, tensions were ratcheting up both on the sideline (where McEntee briefly ended up on the ground) and in the main stand (where rival supporters exchanged verbal unpleasantries).
Afterwards, the Meath legend was asked had he slipped or was he pushed? Cue a sequence of enigmatic replies along the lines of "Where?", "What happened?", "I saw nothing!" and "I've had worse". Which, no doubt, he has.
Back to the real action. Portlaoise shaded the opening quarter and led by four after Colm Parkinson emphatically finished off a defence-splitting move on 11 minutes. Brigid's green flag riposte came within five minutes, Paddy Andrews pouncing.
By then, Andrews was already engaged in a standout duel with Cahir Healy. The Brigid's go-to forward finished with 1-4 from play despite having the limpet-like Healy on his case.
At the other end, the Brigid's defence opened in the same porous vein as their previous outing against Horeswood. Parkinson spurned a second goal chance, denied by Shane Supple when he should have offloaded to the unmarked Paul Cahillane. Then Fitzgerald walloped one off the near upright.
Dublin panellist Murray was liberated by a switch to centre-back. Four unanswered points brought Brigid's level by the break, with Murray involved in two. "He's the most mentally tough player I've ever come across," explained Ken Darcy. "He might lose six balls in a row but it doesn't matter, he'll always get up and win the next one."
Still, at no stage could they shake off the Laois champions, who briefly edged two ahead after a rapid-fire hat-trick of points from Adrian Kelly. Then, with the sides level again, Brian Glynn snatched another Portlaoise goal chance badly askew.
A pivotal moment? Perhaps, but one of many. Later you had Ryan's debatable 'wide' and another injury-time miss when the same player should have killed the game. He eventually broke his duck with that 80th-minute goal. "Philly needed to make up for it because Philly missed a score at the end of normal time," McEntee reminded. "It would have saved us 20 minutes of an awful lot of anxiety and a lot of effort."
And a whole lot of entertainment too.