Lillis lauds Portlaoise after going extra mile
PORTLAOISE 1-15 SLASHERS 3-7
LEINSTER club SFC QUARTER-FINAL
THERE are few club teams around the country as grizzled and battle-hardened as the Portlaoise footballers and they certainly had to summon every ounce of their experience and conviction to survive this titanic battle.
Trailing by eight soon after the break after getting hit with three goals in the opening 26 minutes, there was little hope on their horizon as the Longford Slashers looked set to pull off a huge shock in the sodden and unremitting gloom of Pearse Park.
In conditions that were so damp and dark that one supporter pulled out a flashlight in the late stages, the record seven-time Leinster champions found the composure and physical strength to drag themselves through the mire into extra-time and managed to close out one of their most famous victories.
Their superior bench had a lot to do with it and the poignancy of regular midfielder Adrian Kelly coming off it and snatching their first score in extra-time, 10 days after losing his mother, struck an emotional chord with everyone.
"Lord have mercy on Gretta Kelly – I think she kicked that one over the bar for Adrian today," exclaimed breathless manager Mick Lillis. "He was just fantastic and I am delighted for him and his family. The whole club has been through a traumatic time and thanks to everyone involved for that (support) as well."
Inter-county men and veterans like Cahir Healy, Conor Boyle, Craig Rogers, Brian Smith, Bruno McCormack and Paul Cahillane led Portlaoise's late charge and teenage sub goalie Graham Brody (19) was another hero. He was just off the bench for the injured Mickey Nolan when he had to step up to a '45' and hit it flawlessly to cut the deficit to a point before pulling off a vital save.
Paul Cahillane quickly grabbed a brilliant 54th-minute equaliser and players from both sides spurned chances to score the winner before finishing level at the end of normal time (1-12 to 3-6).
And when it moved into extra-time, Portlaoise's greater experience stood to them and they outscored the Slashers by 0-3 to 0-1 in the subsequent slog fest, with Kelly, Rogers and substitute Kevin Fitzpatrick slotting those vital late scores.
But the Longford champions were resolutely heroic in defeat, with Niall Mulligan, Michael Brady, Martin Nevin, Mark Smith, Peter Foy, Barry Gilleran and Dermot Brady all outstanding and it was a shame that such endeavour didn't earn both teams a replay.
"That was the mother and father of a battle – Leinster club football at its best," said Lillis. "They hit us with three goals, but these lads didn't win seven in a row (Laois titles) without character, they showed it today and it's just fantastic to be part of it.
"There was unbelievable commitment out there from both sides. Fellas dived in on balls, they put it all on the line. We probably just had the bit of experience to see us through.
"I always felt if we could just chip away at it and stay in the game that we could come back and that's what we did," he said as Portlaoise's dripping heroes headed for the showers and looked to re-group for the challenge of Kildare champions Moorefield next week.
"We are bitterly disappointed, we created a great platform but just weren't able to move on," said crestfallen Slashers boss Denis Connerton, whose side led 3-3 to 0-6 at half-time after three stunning first-half goals, two of them within 38 seconds of each other.
Yet despite all their midfield dominance, Slashers only managed to score four points in the remaining 50 minutes and Colin Smith's 79th-minute free was their only score in extra-time.
"We just got tired, their bench was exceptionally strong and we've been without three first-team players all seasons, so our squad just isn't as strong as we'd like, but the lads all still put in a massive effort," Connerton said.
He was unhappy with some of David Gough's marginal decisions. "I just felt they were going with the team that was expected to win," he said. "But we had the platform and have only ourselves to blame for that and we have to give Portlaoise credit too for the manner they came back from eight points down."
Shockwaves coursed through the visitors early when a brilliant Niall Mulligan ball into Mark Smith yielded Slashers' first goal after 15 minutes.
Martin Nevin forced a good save from Nolan from the next kick-out, an ominous sign of what was to come and Mulligan slotted a '45' to put them two clear. Ten minutes later, they carved open Portlaoise with two stunning goals inside a minute, with Peter Foy the provider for first Nevin and then Mulligan and the latter following it with a '45' to give them a sensational lead.
When Nevin and Foy grabbed two points on the restart, Portlaoise looked gone but they dug out a victory that will be talked about for years to come.
Scorers – Portlaoise: C Rogers 0-6 (2fs), B McCormack 1-2, P Cahillane 0-2, C Boyle, A Kelly, K Fitzpatrick, M Nolan, G Brody 0-1 each. Slashers: N Mulligan 1-2 (2 '45s), M Smith, M Nevin 1-1 each, C Smith 0-2 (2fs), P Foy 0-1.
Portlaoise – M Nolan; M McNulty, P Cotter, B Mulligan; E Whelan, C Healy, T Fitzgerald; C Boyle, K Lillis; B Glynn, B McCormack, G Dillon; P Cahillane, C Rogers, B Smith. Subs: S Nerney for Dillon, D Seale for Whelan (h-t), G Brody for Nolan (inj, 49), K Fitzpatrick for Smith (53), A Kelly for Fitzgerald (55), B Smith for Glynn (73).
Longford Slashers – C Farrell; D Glennon, B Gilleran, G Ghee; P Brady, D Brady (capt), M Diffley; M Brady, D Sheridan; T Clendenning, N Mulligan, M Nevin; M Smith, P Foy, C Smith. Subs: P Dobson for Glennon (52), A Dalton for Clendenning (55), M Tarney for D Sheridan (59), Clendenning for Dobson (67).
ReF – D Gough (Meath)