Brilliant Beaufort scale Premier Junior heights in six-goal extra-time thriller against Na Gaeil
County Premier Junior FC Final: Beaufort 4-13 Na Gaeil 2-18
To all the neutrals who opted for the beach or a barbecue last Sunday instead of pitching up to Austin Stack Park for the Premier Junior and Intermediate finals we say: your loss. The sun will surely shine again this summer but it's doubtful there will be another local game as brilliantly exciting and entertaining as the Premier Junior Football Final for the rest of the year.
After 80-plus minutes of searingly honest and open football, Beaufort left Tralee with the title and cup, but they will savour and remember this county final for years to come only because Na Gaeil played such a brilliant part in it. Like the Intermediate final that came after, this contest had two teams full of talent and brimming with confidence in their own ability, and accordingly the attendance of a couple of thousand was rewarded with a game for the ages.
An aggregate of six goals and 31 points (1-25 after the regulation 60 minutes) epitomised the openness of the game - even though some very sloppy defending contributed to the high goal count - and Na Gaeil could hardly have believed before the game that 2-18 wouldn't be enough to win a title they have seriously coveted for a couple of seasons.
Four minutes into extra-time, when they trailed by five points, Beaufort might scarcely have thought the title would be heading to the foot of the Reeks but such was the helter-skelter nature of this match that no one dared predict a winner until the last and longest of Eddie Walsh's whistles, some 82 minutes after it all began. Na Gaeil trailed by a point at that stage and were on the offensive, moving the ball around to try and get a shooter into the best possible position, but the final whistle sounded some eight seconds after the signalled two minutes of 'additional time' to break Na Gaeil hearts and send the Beaufort players, mentors and supporters into raptures.
This was an absorbing final from the throw-in, with Na Gaeil racing into a 0-4 to 0-0 lead by the seventh minute before Fergal Hallissey's ninth minute goal hauled Beaufort into the contest. Thereafter there was never any more than three points between the teams until Na Gaeil forged into a 1-16 to 1-11 lead at the start of the first period of extra-time, helped by Dara Devine's goal from close range after the ball broke kindly to him in the Beaufort square.
Devine's goal was, remarkably, the first of five in extra-time, with the two from Beaufort on the cusp of half-time the defining 60 seconds in the entire match. First Ronan Murphy showed incredible dexterity for a big man to gather the ball and slip the tackles of two Na Gaeil defenders before driving the ball past goalkeeper Timmy Culloty into the far corner of the net. That made it 2-13 to 1-16 and both teams, one presumes, would have been happy enough to turn around for the second period level and go at it again. But within seconds of the kickout Ciaran Kennedy lumped a long delivery towards the Na Gaeil goal, like a fox being thrown high into a chicken coup, and when the feathers settled the ball and Culloty were in the ball of the net...and the goal stood.
In less than seven minutes Beaufort had gone from being five points behind to three in front and it was, in every respect, the 'Championship minutes' that decided the outcome.
Two Dara Devine frees at the start of the second period of extra-time got the Tralee team back to within a point of Beaufort but the next score would be absolutely crucial and it was a Beaufort goal, this time Liam Carey dropping the high ball into the Na Gaeil goalmouth and Kennedy getting his fist on it to put it past Culloty. In typical fashion Na Gaeil responded brilliantly within a minute with Diarmuid O'Connor meeting Andrew Barry's long ball into knock the ball past Mike Moriarty to make it 2-18 to 4-13, but in the dying seconds Divine pushed a long-range free wide and then the final whistle went before Na Gaeil could get a last, potentially equalising shot away.
It was an ending fitting of all the excitement that had gone before and there'd have been no complaint from either team had a replay been needed, but in the end Beaufort better capitalised on some sloppy Na Gaeil defending than the other way around. It will be scant consolation for Na Gaeil that they had the official Man of the Match winner, Stefan Okunbor, in their team, who toiled brilliantly alongside the Barry brothers, Fergal, Andrew and Jack, Diarmuid O'Connor and Dara Devine for the losers. Okunbor started at full back and though he should have done better for Beaufort's first goal, the Kerry U-20 player played brilliantly there before being moved out around midfield where he continued to cause Beaufort all sorts of problems.
Jack Barry had his moments of dominance too, especially the first quarter when Na Gaeil raced into that four-point lead, but Beaufort's midfield partnership of Ronan Murphy and Nathan Breen enjoyed plenty of dominance too throughout, although Okunbor's athleticism outshone them all on this occasion.
Liam Carey, as he has been all through this Championship, was excellent on the 'forty' and was Ciaran Kennedy inside at full forward, while Fergal Hallissey - before his 56th minute sending off for black and yellow card offences - was another Beaufort forward who produced a performance for a county final.
In the end it was the only Division One team in the competition that claimed the silverware, and in doing so avenged their first round defeat by Na Gaeil in 2017.
Quite how the Mid Kerry club does in the Munster Club JFC and beyond remains to be seen but they've a long summer to catch their breath after this win.