When Austin Stacks supporters lit a few flares on the railway side terrace and sent a pyrotechnic whistling into the black sky it was, whatever else, a momentary and welcome distraction from the distinct lack of fireworks down on the playing pitch.
The only surprise, perhaps, was that those Rockies supporters were able to keep their flares dry until launch time, given the damp squib of a game unravelling in front of them.
It’s possible, too, that in the few minutes it took the smoke to wash its way down into the Horan’s car park and make the pitch visible again, that those on the terrace behind the dug-outs didn’t miss much in terms of real action.
Let’s be clear: this first semi-final was a bit of a dog of a game for well over 50 minutes, and pretty much right up until Michael O’Donnell’s goal – or do we chalk it down as an Eoghan O’Brien own goal? – helped to ignite a hitherto poor contest and spectacle.
Thereafter, of course, the couple of thousand onlookers around the old ground – and the television audience watching in – were treated to an evening of right old drama and intrigue, all the way to Kieran Donaghy slotting his penalty past O’Brien to send Stacks to their first county final appearance since they lifted ‘the Bishop’ in 2014.
The only wonder was that Donaghy didn’t go all Antonín Panenka and dink the ball down the middle of the goal. Honestly, at that stage anything was possible.
In the run up to the penalty shoot-out – from Stacks’ first goal, through to the six additional minutes at the end of the regulation 60, which turned into eight and a half, giving O’Brien just enough time to convert a ‘45’ to draw the game and on into extra-time – there were more incidents or note in the last 25 minutes of the contest than in the 55 that went before that.
Indeed, we would never have had those six / eight added on minutes in the first place but for the game-ending (and perhaps season-ending) hand injury to Diarmuid O’Connor, and it is entirely possible (if speculative) that St Brendans, and not Stacks, would this week be preparing for a Tralee derby final had he stayed on.
The Na Gaeil and Kerry player was pulling up trees for the divisional team in the first half, and it would have been interesting to have seen if he could have driven and dragged his district to a first county final since 1992.
Even without O’Connor – whose involvement in Na Gaeil’s county IFC final the weekend after next seems in serious doubt because of a broken finger – St Brendans had their chance of victory – albeit they needed every second of those almost nine added minutes to rescue a draw and force extra-time.
Ivan Parker – much more a St Brendans hero than villain, despite his miss in the penalty shoot-out – was a revelation after coming in for the injured Alan O’Donoghue late in the first half, kicking four points from play and his extra-time goal that catapulted his team into the lead in the 20th minute of extra-time.
The Churchill man had also converted a free in the seventh minute of extra-time, but perhaps his biggest regret of the night will be the 20-metre free he put wide three minutes later. Within a minute Sean Quilter had unintentionally floated a kick for a point in over Parker’s club mate, Eoghan O’Brien for Stacks’ second goal that was just as unexpected as their first.
That Stacks went to the extra-time half time break 2-8 to 0-10 ahead, rather than level at 1-8 to 0-11 as it might have been, was another mini victory for the club side that never bossed the game or dictated the terms at any stage.
Credit, then, to St Brendans for winding Stacks in again in the second period, so much so that it was Stacks – and Quilter – that needed to convert a 80th minute free to square the scores again after Parker’s ambitious and delicious strike for his goal.
In the welter of excitement it could even be forgotten that an 82nd minute free from Quilter went wide of a post, which had the ball been six inched the other side would have meant no penalties.
Ah, penalties. Not everyone’s cup of tea – not in Gaelic games anyway, though we are all happy to revel in the drama when it’s Germany or the like booting England out of a World Cup from the penalty spot.
Yeah, they’re a cruel way for a team to lose a match, but isn't sport and championships all about winners and losers. The pandemic and the squeeze on the fixtures calendar has necessitated ‘winner on the day’ outcomes, but do we really need to revert back to the old ways of replays when the fog clears?
There is a very good chance both teams and managements would have agreed to a mid-week of Friday night replay right after extra-time ended last Saturday, and no one would be complaining this week if that was to be. Certainly the county board treasurer would welcome the extra money, but we are where we are after what is, after all, a fairly rare occurrence: the shoot-out.
A few of things to note here. It was interesting to see that the first five penalties – Quilter, Parker, Adam Curran, Mikey Kelliher and Michael O’Donnell – were taken by players who didn’t start the game, whether it was because they felt they had fresher legs, or simply put themselves forward to take on.
Seven of the nine penalties taken were very good, in particular Curran’s and Kelliher’s whose strikes were both right into the bottom corner of the goal.
Whatever about Wayne Guthrie coming off his goal line early – and he did steal a metre, as he did for Jack Barry’s penalty which he almost kept out too – Parker’s was a poorly place shot. In the interests of balance, it’s noted that O’Brien broke his line early for Michael O’Gara's penalty, which begs the question why the umpires were taking such keen interest on the goalkeeper’s positioning and then doing nothing about obvious breaches?
Anyhow, it brought us all down the tracks to Donaghy’s penalty. We're not sure why, but we had a small moment of doubt that he would score it. Perhaps it was more a case of believing O’Brien would have a moment of redemption rather than any doubt in Donaghy's capacity to write the headlines. After all, this is a man who has scored pressure goals in Croke Park and drained crucial three-pointer on the basketball course.
Ball down. Eyes up. Nothing but net.
All that was missing was one last flare to light up the night sky above Star.
Those Rockies supporters are keeping their powder dry for the final, right?