At half-time in Saturday’s opening county SFC semi-final, spectators were bored out of their minds. Those watching at home on TV were probably thinking about changing channels. It was 0-3 each between Austin Stacks and St Brendan’s. Even Wayne Quillinan admitted afterwards that it was like watching paint dry.
Fast forward to the following day and, again, there wasn’t a great deal of excitement reverberating around Austin Stack Park when the teams retired to the dressing room after the opening 30 minutes of the second semi-final.
Dr Crokes were comfortably in control with a five-point lead, 0-8 to 0-3, Kerins O’Rahillys were struggling, and there were no signs of an epic contest breaking out.
By the time the final whistle was blown in both matches, however, the players, the managements, the fans, the neutrals, had all been whisked through an absolute rollercoaster of emotions, ending with Stacks edging into the final by virtue of a penalty shoot-out, and their Tralee rivals coming back from the dead on Sunday to join them by the minimum of margins.
Yet the final results don’t even tell half the story of what transpired in these last four clashes. Before any analysis of the winners can take place, it would be out of order not to pay tribute to the efforts of St Brendan’s and Dr Crokes, who are attempting to come to terms this week with two of the most earth-shattering losses in their recent histories.
Loads of things didn’t go right for Donal Rooney’s divisional outfit on Saturday night. They lost their captain Alan O’Donoghue to injury in the first half, and they then received the biggest blow of all when talisman Diarmuid O’Connor (who was already shaping up as the dominant figure in midfield) was crocked at the throw-in to the second half and could not continue.
To add to that sense of misfortune, they conceded two of the flukiest goals that it’s possible for any team to concede, firstly towards the end of normal time when a miss-hit free, a flick-on and the post combined to see the ball rebound off goalkeeper Eoghan O’Brien and into his own net, and then right at the conclusion of the first half of extra-time when an attempt at a point, inexplicably, found a trajectory over O’Brien’s head and under the bar.
They were three points down after the first Stacks’ green flag, 1-6 to 0-6, and four down after the second, 2-8 to 0-10. Each time, inspired by men like Stefan Okunbor, Andrew Barry and the enigmatic figure of Ivan Parker, they came back, and when the Churchill super-sub struck his goal of the season contender in the 80th minute, they were, unbelievably, a point in front.
Yet such, sometimes, is the ridiculous irony of sport that, after the ‘Rockies had showed their own magnificent character to fight back themselves and bring the game to spot-kicks, it was the undisputed man-of-the-match in Parker who was to be the only person not to score his penalty. Did he deserve that? Certainly not.
Dr Crokes must also be flabbergasted this week. Six points up early in the second half, containing the threat of Tommy Walsh at one end, with Johnny Buckley rolling back the years at midfield, and Tony Brosnan returning to his razor-sharp form in attack at the other end, Edmund O’Sullivan’s men were totally in the ascendancy.
Even with O’Rahillys upping the intensity levels, and starting to make inroads on the scoreboard, Donagh Buckley’s needless loss of discipline, picking up a straight red card in the 41st minute, appeared to keep Crokes in the driving seat. Unusually for them though, within five minutes, they had blown their numerical advantage, with David Naughton sent off and Gavin O’Shea black-carded.
Losing goalkeeper Shane Murphy to injury early in the fourth quarter was a hammer blow, and even one of the greatest pieces of defending in a long time from Brian Looney (making a miraculous goal-line clearance after Jack Savage had beaten Murphy’s replacement Adam Kelly with a thunderbolt) could not save Dr Crokes from defeat. David Shaw’s last-gasp free from out on the left wing went, agonisingly, wide of the far post.
Why are we now looking forward to the mouth-watering prospect of Austin Stacks and Kerins O’Rahillys in an all-Tralee county final? For the first time in this year’s championship, they were both put to the absolute pin of their collars, and beyond, but they are the last two teams standing. Wayne Quillinan and William Harmon are entitled to be dead chuffed with the never-say-die attitudes of their sides.
Stacks weren’t at their best on Saturday night, apart from key forward Darragh O’Brien, netminder Wayne Guthrie and, probably, Conor Jordan at centre-back, but their defensive organisation is so watertight (notwithstanding Parker’s indefatigable impact) that they are always a tough nut to crack. They did get the luck on the day, but they also refused to accept defeat at the denouement to extra-time.
The Rockies are fully cognisant of the fact that they can play a lot better, and will have to in a fortnight’s time, but they have young guns chomping at the bit to force their way into the side (look at the way some of them put themselves forward for the shoot-out) and they have Kieran Donaghy’s vast experience in the locker, which will be vital in the build-up to December 5.
As for Kerins O’Rahillys, they were simply too tame in the first half, almost bemused by-standers as the great Dr Crokes juggernaut ploughed its’ way through their ranks. At half-time, it was either sink or swim. They chose the latter. While their increased enthusiasm went over the top at times (as it did for their opponents) in a hugely ill-disciplined second half, bringing a sense of madness to proceedings was, probably, their only way of resurrecting their hopes.
Their key scoring forwards all stepped up to the plate, with Jack Savage leading the charge (they didn’t record a single wide in the second half), David Moran was an awesome presence at midfield in the last 20 minutes (don’t forget his vital interception to prevent Buckley’s potential goal assist), and their backs tackled like terriers, with special mention for an unsung hero in Con Barrett, whose driving runs from deep ignited his team on more than one occasion.
When all is said and done, as the quarter-finals had proven, there was absolutely nothing between the four semi-finalists of this competition. They were all worthy of a place in the season’s showpiece for the Bishop Moynihan Cup.
St Brendan’s 2022 prospects are now dependent, to a large extent, on whether Na Gaeil are triumphant in the forthcoming county intermediate final, while Dr Crokes have to face into a game that they would never have wished to comprehend, a relegation play-off against local rivals, Killarney Legion.
Austin Stacks and Kerins O’Rahillys have no such worries. They are the lucky survivors, and it’s full steam ahead for their final preparations. Strap yourselves in.
After what we have witnessed over the weekend, what the hell could be in store in a fortnight?