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'Castle stands up to Saints

THE AIB Leinster club football championship has some history when it comes to festive fireworks on the cusp of Christmas, and yesterday's decider lived up to the competition's well-earned reputation for high drama.

When it was all over, Garrycastle were in ecstasy, Westmeath was celebrating its first provincial club SFC title, while unheralded substitute Conor Cosgrove will have awoken today to see his name plastered over a plethora of banner headlines.

Meanwhile, St Brigid's were left cursing their luck, probably cursing the eagle eye of referee Syl Doyle, and doubtless bemoaning a disastrous first half that left them playing catch-up for most of this ultimately absorbing final at O'Connor Park.

Throughout their hectic autumn and winter schedule, the Dublin champions have specialised in retrieving difficult (if not quite lost) causes.

The irony is that yesterday, having found themselves in probably the deepest hole they've encountered all season -- eight points adrift with only 20 minutes remaining -- they battled all the way back to parity only to then suffer a fatal free concession at the death.

It was certainly a big call by Doyle, and the type that frequently isn't given, but the video replay clearly indicates it was the right one. Mark McCallon had just kicked a long ball from midfield when Brigid's substitute Odhran McCann -- only a couple of minutes on the pitch -- tackled the Garrycastle defender half a second too late.

He duly caught McCallon's kicking leg, and the Wexford whistler (who had something of an erratic performance) whistled for a free where the ball landed.

The resultant kick, from the right wing, was certainly no 'gimme'.

Dessie Dolan has endured something of a chequered past with history-beckoning last-second frees, but the former All Star had been on fire during the first quarter especially and neutrals half-expected him to take on the challenge.

"With my track record?" a laughing Dolan demurred when quizzed afterwards. "Ah no, I wouldn't have minded but Conor is a left-footer and he just ran straight over and popped it over the bar. There was never a question."

It is questionable whether Garrycastle could have survived extra-time without that free. Dolan reckons not, predicting they would have been "out the gate".

Instead, there wasn't even time for Shane Supple to launch one final counter-attack. As Garrycastle fans raced from the terrace side to embrace their heroes, there was the brief flicker of a flare-up between rival players but a potential powder-keg situation dissipated quickly and St Brigid's were left to reflect on what might have been.

On the decision to award that game-breaking free, joint-manager Gerry McEntee merely responded: "I don't know. Ask Syl Doyle about it." His star forward, Paddy Andrews, suggested it was hard to see, admitted the tackle had given the referee a decision to make, but added: "We would have liked another kick-out because we thought we were on top."

On that score, the one minute of injury-time signalled seemed parsimonious but -- in fairness to Doyle -- the foul was committed 55 seconds into stoppage time and almost 100 additional seconds had elapsed when Cosgrove calmly bisected the posts.

Moreover, Brigid's can't blame officialdom for their own fitfulness. For a team with such noted fitness reserves, they were curiously becalmed for almost the entire first half.

The initial scoring stats are damning: just one early Ken Darcy free in an entire first half that ended with them five adrift.

The tone was set during the first quarter when Dolan scorched Graham Norton for three points from play before Martin Cahill moved across to offer more abrasive resistance.

It could have been worse if Gary Dolan (fisting wide of the far post) and Paddy Mulvihill (blocked at point-blank range) had found the net. Countering that, when Brigid's belatedly got motoring in the run-up to half-time, Darcy miscued a glorious goal chance as bodies converged on a rebound off the post, while Mark Cahill and Darcy then fluffed presentable frees.



CONSOLATION

Three minutes after the resumption, Andrews finally landed their first point from play but that looked of mere consolation value after Dessie Dolan curled in his fifth point (fourth from play) and then Gary Dolan ghosted onto a speculative James Duignan effort, rising above Supple to flick to the net for a 39th minute goal.

Garrycastle now led 1-7 to 0-2. Game, set and ... finally we had a match. Incredibly, Brigid's would land the next eight points. During one five-minute flurry from the 46th minute, Andrews (finally turning the screw on John Gaffey after an epic duel) tallied a free and three more from play while John O'Loughlin powered through the middle for his second score.

"We always back ourselves," said Andrews, whose side now had all the momentum.

But perhaps the key phase was the next nine scoreless minutes during which Garrycastle stemmed the bleeding, aided by steadying cameos from substitutes Alan Fox and Aidan Browne.

Eventually, right on the hour mark, Brigid's drew level when Andrews teed up substitute Gavin McIntyre for a seemingly priceless point. But then, having won the next kick-out, they kicked away possession and the rest is history, for both club and county.

Last word to Dessie Dolan: "I'm absolutely thrilled. It's probably my best sporting moment. I know we won the Leinster in 2004 but your club is special and that's what makes this competition so unbelievable."


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