Athenry's hungry heroes hit back to claim crown
ATHENRY 0-16 ST JOSEPH'S 0-12
ST JOSEPH'S 0-12
LIKE men on a mission, Athenry arrived at Croke Park yesterday desperately seeking revenge.
A year ago, the Galway club lost to St Joseph's of Doora-Barefield in a controversial semi-final, and the hunger engendered by that one-point defeat drove Athenry on to new heights as they produced an inspired second-half display to claim their second AIB All-Ireland club hurling title in four years.
``When we won in '97 there was just a feeling of relief. We lost a final in '88 and then had reached a few semi-finals, so winning it then was just pure relief, but this one is completely different, just fantastic!'' said delighted centre-back Brian Feeney.
``Winning it a second time, and within a few years, puts us up there with some of the great club teams like Sarsfields and St Finbarrs,'' he added. ``It proves the last one was no fluke and we really felt we had another club title in us.''
In the first quarter of yesterday's tense battle, they had little reason for such optimism.
In sport, as in the movies, sequels are rarely better than the original and often fizzle out disappointingly with an over-emphasis on cautious, defensive tactics. After 14 minutes, this eagerly anticipated clash of the reigning Clare champions and their old foes looked like sticking to that script.
St Joseph's, led by Ger Hoey in defence and Jamesie O'Connor in attack, had surged into a four-point lead. However, there had been little to enthuse about in what was, up to then, a lack-lustre, mistake-ridden battle that was being decided by the free-taking prowess of Seanie McMahon and Eugene Cloonan.
But then the Galwaymen sprang into life, boosted by inspirational captain Joe Rabbitte who scored their first point from play and shook his fist brazenly in celebration.
That single, defiant gesture seemed to be the signal Athenry needed to shake off their nerves and open their shoulders.
With 10 minutes left to the break, they scored four unanswered points to draw level (0-9 apiece) and no one was more inspirational at this vital stage than young midfielder Brian Hanley.
He'd already scored a magnificent sideline cut, but outdid it with two soaring late points in injury-time, completely eclipsing regular Banner superstar Ollie Baker who looked a shadow of his regular self even prior to needing treatment for an injury before half-time.
Hanley, Rabbitte and lightning quick half-forward Donal Moran hinted of the threat to come and suddenly a game which had remarkably lacked atmosphere perhaps due to the surreal sight of the gaping hole where the Hogan Stand usually sits and the fact that all 30,000-plus fans were coralled into the New Stand and Hill 16 sprang to life.
An off-the-ball incident involving Greg Baker and Kenneth Kennedy after 25 minutes also noticeably upped the ante and Baker, certainly, was lucky to escape with a yellow card from referee Michael Wadding for the retaliatory swing which caught the linesman's attention.
On the resumption, Athenry took the initiative and only some desperate defending by St Joseph's stopped them bursting through on goal.
Within 12 minutes of the second half, Athenry had taken a three point lead. The Galway men may not have found the net, but Cloonan finally beat Donal Cahill to score a point from play, while Donal Moran scored an excellent point after being set up by brilliant wingback Brian Higgins, our choice for Man of the Match.
Andrew Whelan pulled the deficit back to two points after 44 minutes, but six minutes later St Joseph's suffered a major blow when he was stretchered off with a recurrence of the hamstring injury which had made him a pre-match worry.
Jamesie, by now at centre-forward but still marked by Paul Hardiman, seemed to be the only St Joseph's forward firing on all cylinders, and their confidence seemed to drain away as they quickly added four more wides to their first half tally of six.
The tide then visibly swung towards Athenry. Rabbitte, growing in stature with every magnificent, rising catch, bril liantly flicked up a ball to David Donohue who cleverly shortened his grip before sending over a point from an impossible angle.
In contrast, Jamesie uncharacteristically mis-directed a 43m free and on their next attack, Joseph's were foiled by a cool catch and clearance from excellent 'keeper Michael Crimmins.
With six minutes left, the Claremen still trailed by only two points but the signs of desperation were there.
They switched McMahon to try to curb Rabbitte and within minutes they threw caution to the wind and dis patched him up to centre-forward.
But Athenry dug deep and went three points clear again following a great score from Cloonan. Pat Higgins burst down the left wing, hand-passed off to Cloonan and he danced two circles (and possibly over-stepped) before kicking over a point which sparked off the first chorus of `The Fields of Athenry' from The Hill.
With two minutes left, they got another break when Higgins won a contentious penalty when many thought he was fouled outside the area, if fouled at all.
A murmur rang around as Cloonan stepped forward and his teammates raced in to offer advice. Cloonan duly opted for a point, and the sliotar was last seen heading at full speed towards Gaybo's backgarden in Howth.
``Yeah, we were three points up so I decided to tap it over, if it was blocked I'd have been shot,'' admitted the modest 21-year-old afterwards
O'Connor replied with a free within a minute, but Cloon an's next point his ninth of the game which brought his tally in their four-game run to the title to a staggering 3-24 put the result beyond doubt.
Doora-Barefield didn't give up and Gerry Keane and Feeney were forced, in the four minutes of injury-time played, to make an heroic double-block on a brave, last-gasp shot at the other end by substitute Colm Mullen.
But few could argue that the Galway side fully deserved the victory and were unflattered by the margin.
The champions will rue their first-half wastefulness and their inability to turn the screw when Athenry's defence, in which Eamonn Keogh and Higgins starred, tended to over- play the ball before the break.
Their bid to emulate Sarsfields and become only the second club to win consecutive hurling titles was foiled by a better team on the day and they'll have the consolation that Athenry had no desire to rub their noses in it.
``The press were making out that we had a crib with Doora-Barefield because of last year,'' stressed Eugene Cloonan. ``That was never the case, we'd absolutely no crib with them, last year or now. They're a great team, they trained as hard as us, out in the same cold evenings as us, and we've nothing but respect for them.''
SCORERS Athenry: E Cloonan 0-9 (5f, 1 penalty), B Hanley 0-3 (1f), D Moran 0-2, J Rabbitte, D Donohue 0-1 each. Doora-Barefield: S McMahon 0-6 (4f,2 '65s), J O'Connor 0-3 (1f), D Hoey, O Baker and A Whelan 0-1 each.
ATHENRY M Crimmins; E Keogh, G Keane, J Feeney; B Higgins, B Feeney, P Hardiman; B Keogh, B Hanley; J Rabbitte (capt), P Higgins, D Moran; C Moran, E Cloonan, D Donohue. Subs: A Poniard for C Moran (44 mins), P Healy for Higgins (61 mins), D Higins for Donohue (63 mins).
DOORA-BAREFIELD C O'Connor; G Hoey, D Cahill, K Kennedy; D Hoey, S McMahon, D O'Driscoll; O Baker, J Considine; J O'Connor, N Brodie, L Hassett (Capt); G Baker, C O'Neill, A Whelan. Subs: C Mullen for Brodie (44 mins), F O'Sullivan for Whelan (inj, 51 mins), P Fahy for O'Neill (58 mins).
REF M Wadding (Waterford).