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Raw emotion as Rathgarogue-Cushinstown make footballing history

AIB All-Ireland Club Junior Football Championship Semi-final: Rathgarogue-Cushinstown 1-7 Blackhill Emeralds 1-6

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Captain Matthew Cody seeking a colleague with a handpass

Captain Matthew Cody seeking a colleague with a handpass

Captain Matthew Cody seeking a colleague with a handpass

Not for the first time in this campaign, the Rathgarogue-Cushinstown footballers searched deep within themselves and came up with the goods in the face of heavy adversity on another glorious day in the club's history.

A rain-lashed St. Conleth's Park in Newbridge was no place for the faint-hearted on Saturday, but there was nobody in green and gold shirking from the challenge as they created history by becoming the first-ever Wexford club side to qualify for an All-Ireland football final.

The joyous scenes that greeted their county and Leinster successes were repeated on the last whistle of referee Barry Judge as fans swarmed from the stand to congratulate their heroes.

And in a game where nothing really separated the sides, the Rathgarogue-Cushinstown crew displayed heart, spirit and resolve in abundance as they overcame the Ulster champions, Blackhill Emeralds from Monaghan, in a tense, low-scoring struggle.

Ultimately, it was a superb solo point from Tadhg Cody in the 56th minute that tipped the scales in their favour and secured a dream date in Croke Park against Na Gaeil of Kerry, the newest club formed in Tralee, on Saturday week.

However, he was just one among a group of 17 heroic history-makers, because everybody involved played crucial roles in a supreme team effort.

The winners' goal led a charmed existence on a couple of occasions in the first-half in particular, but first Peadar Cody and then Patrick Murphy (twice) performed heroics to keep their net intact.

And then in the second period, netminder Nicky Sinnott made two priceless saves from Philip Donnelly and substitute Andrew Burns respectively to give his side the impetus they needed to get over the line.

With the rain teeming down from the off, there was a lot of slipping and sliding in tussles for possession, while the ball resembled a bar of soap.

It was a day for true grit to shine through, and thankfully Rathgarogue-Cushinstown had that in abundance along with their undoubted football ability.

Blackhill may have thought they were throwing their rivals a curve ball by starting with just five players lining out in the positions as listed on the match programme, but the opposition had their homework done and weren't fazed in the slightest.

Patrick Murphy had been given the task of man-marking the Monaghan side's ace forward Michael Geehan, and he did a magnificent job in holding the nippy number 15 scoreless.

Indeed, with five of their six points coming from frees, and the other kicked by a corner-back, it was an incredible feat for Rathgarogue-Cushinstown to restrict the opposition forwards to just one score - a goal in first-half added time - from play.

In contrast, they had four marksmen, apart from free-taker Daire Bolger, contributing 1-3 between them, and in a game of such fine margins, every single one of those scores proved precious.

Tadhg Cody was unfortunate to hit the post with a point attempt on their first attack, but they got off the mark in the fifth minute when a long line ball from Bolger on the right broke to Jason Dunne at the far post, and he hooked it high between the posts at the Athgarvan end.

There was a brief scare when goalkeeper Nicky Sinnott slipped as he dealt with a delivery from Anthony Courtney, but his recovery was quick and any danger was averted.

An intended short palmed pass by Bryan Cody to Eoin Porter that went over the latter's head led to a Blackhill breakaway and eventually a levelling point from a free by their most threatening forward, Philip Donnelly, in the eighth minute.

The first major let-off for Rathgarogue-Cushinstown occurred when a wayward backwards free gifted possession to their northern rivals.

Donnelly soloed towards goal before parting to his right for Michael Geehan, but the recipient dropped the ball and that was enough for an alert Patrick Murphy to drive it clear with a first-time kick.

However, within seconds the leather was back in the danger zone from a Tommy Geehan delivery, and Hugh Byrne beat the advancing Nicky Sinnott to the punch, only for full-back Peadar Cody to launch himself in the air and make a goal-line clearance.

It was a fantastic piece of defending, and it typified the fighting qualities coursing through the veins of this superbly-prepared team.

Blackhill continued to threaten, though, and their captain, Hugh Byrne, fisted harmlessly wide from close range in the eleventh minute when he had time to catch and kick a ball into the danger zone from midfielder Dermot Daly who, like partner Ciarán Courtney, sported heavy black strapping on his right knee.

Remarkably, Rathgarogue-Cushinstown only shot two wides compared to seven from their rivals, with the sole first-half miss coming from Eric Cummins after a Brian O'Neill pass in the 14th minute.

The second quarter opened with Michael Geehan fouled on a solo run, and the kick was ideally suited for a left-footer as Dermot Daly duly put Blackhill in front for the first time (0-2 to 0-1).

He missed his next attempt however, with Tommy Geehan also off target, and midfielder Daly sailed close to the wind with a foul on the influential Daniel Martin Carroll, seconds after his late challenge on Peadar Cody went unpunished.

The fourth Blackhill wide followed from Hugh Byrne before silence descended briefly on the Rathgarogue-Cushinstown faithful when Carroll went down injured.

There may have been fears that his enforced Leinster final departure would be repeated, but thankfully he got back to his feet and went on to make a telling contribution to this special victory.

The equaliser was a well-worked move from a Nicky Sinnott kick-out that was caught by Daire Bolger and fed to Brian O'Neill, with Eoin Porter injecting pace before parting to Bryan Cody who was fouled.

Bolger composed himself just inside the 'D' and duly split the posts to make it 0-2 each with 26 minutes elapsed.

And when he stepped up to take his next placed ball, much closer to midfield and the right sideline, it yielded even better results.

A Blackhill player had been penalised for sticking his boot in during a battle for possession on the ground, and Bolger opted to go long and float the ball towards the square.

It was in the flight path of big Bernard Furlong, and he watched it all the way before flicking it with the back of his fist to the corner of the net.

The Rathgarogue-Cushinstown section of the stand duly erupted, and it would have been a huge fillip if this had been the final score of the half.

However, that precious advantage wasn't held until half-time, with Blackhill responding better to that score than their opponents.

Indeed, the Monaghan men could have goaled twice rather than once in response, as it took some last-gasp defending to keep them out initially before they did equalise.

Nicky Sinnott was caught in no man's land after racing out to intercept a Dermot Daly delivery that was instead won by Philip Donnelly.

He aimed for the far top corner, but the outstanding Patrick Murphy got a hand to the ball and deflected it onto the woodwork before it was cleared.

Unfortunately, with the game just over one minute into added time, a cross from the left by Donnelly was met at the far post by Jason Finnegan who palmed to the net, leaving the sides deadlocked at the break (1-2 each).

Two Blackhill efforts from Donnelly and James Daly dropped short on the re-start before a foul on Bryan Cody resulted in a yellow card for full-back Donal Courtney and the lead point from Daire Bolger.

Just over 90 seconds later, Daniel Martin Carroll got his outstretched right hand to a Blackhill free kick taken from the right corner of their defence, and he brought the ball under control before curling over a beautiful point in such tough conditions (1-4 to 1-2).

It was a positive start to the second-half for the Wexford standard-bearers, but their next scoring attempt from Tadhg Cody didn't have the legs to clear the crossbar before Blackhill responded.

Two Philip Donnelly frees in quick succession brought them level, but Daire Bolger restored the lead after Robert Murphy was impeded at the start of the final quarter (1-5 to 1-4).

It was at that point that Nicky Sinnott showed his shot-stopping qualities for the first time, making a fine save to deny Donnelly after lively substitute Andrew Burns had created the opening.

A late tackle on Jason Dunne presented Daire Bolger with another opportunity, and he slotted over from just outside the 'D', slightly to the left of the posts, to leave two points between the sides entering the last ten minutes.

Blackhill came with another burst though, and Burns nailed a free taken off the ground before an interception by Anthony Courtney on an attempted pass by substitute Aaron Ryan led to corner-back Thomas Courtney joining his attack and kicking high for the equaliser (1-6 each).

The prospects of extra-time loomed large for the second game running, but there was plenty of drama still to come.

Sinnott made another timely intervention, darting off his line to smother an Andrew Burns shot and then earn a free after Philip Donnelly, James Daly and Paul Finnegan combined to pierce the defence.

The winning point arrived just over 30 seconds later, and it came after the ball initially popped up into the air and out of Tadhg Cody's grasp in a central position roughly 55 metres out.

However, he gathered it at the second attempt, turned and did what he does best - driving at the defence before, despite being pushed out a little to the right, angling over a dream point.

Blackhill did have their chances to force an extra 20 minutes, with Andrew Burns taking a free off the ground that drifted left and wide in the 59th minute.

And then, at the start of the three added minutes, Philip Donnelly played the ball down the right flank for substitute Paul Finnegan who was fouled by Bryan Cody.

The defender, already on a yellow card, duly departed after a second booking, leaving 14 men to hold out as if their lives depended on it.

The free was ideally suited to a left-footer, but Dermot Daly had left the fray at half-time, having scored one in the opening period from a similar position.

Philip Donnelly didn't fancy taking it on, instead trying for a short crossfield pass. However, Eoin Porter was alert to the threat and, supported by Jason Dunne, he turned over possession near the endline before winning a free out.

The siege was lifted when Tadhg Cody was fouled 50 seconds from the end, with James Daly shown a black card before Daire Bolger stood over the free.

And even though it tailed wide - Rathgarogue-Cushinstown's first miss of the half - sufficient time had been expended to ensure the final whistle arrived 25 seconds later.

Cue pandemonium on the field and in the stand, and the realisation that Wexford's finest will be travelling en masse to Croke Park in search of All-Ireland glory on Saturday week.

Rathgarogue-Cushinstown: Nicky Sinnott; Patrick Murphy, Peadar Cody, Pádraig McGrath; Bryan Cody, Eoin Porter, Brian O'Neill; Daniel Martin Carroll (0-1), Matthew Cody (capt.); Tadhg Cody (0-1), Daire Bolger (0-4 frees), Bernard Furlong (1-0); Robert Murphy, Eric Cummins, Jason Dunne (0-1). Subs. - Aaron Ryan for Cummins (46), Ollie Bolger for McGrath (50).

Blackhill Emeralds: Michael Shevlin; Shane Courtney, Donal Courtney, Thomas Courtney (0-1); Anthony Courtney, Ryan Courtney, James Daly; Ciarán Courtney, Dermot Daly (0-1 free); Jason Finnegan (1-0), Tommy Geehan, Gerard McArdle; Hugh Byrne (capt.), Philip Donnelly (0-3 frees), Michael Geehan. Subs. - Andrew Burns (0-1 free) for D. Daly (HT), Paul Finnegan for J. Finnegan (52).

Referee: Barry Judge (Sligo).

Wexford People