Monday 23 April 2018

Brigid's cross their Rubicon with a legion of Caesars

Tommy Conlon

If a lot of neutral observers were smiling at the final whistle in Croke Park last Sunday, it wasn't out of any ill-will towards the vanquished players of Ballymun Kickhams.

Far from it. Rather it was just that the good vibes generated by St Brigid's were that bit extra special because of the way they did it, and the characters involved.

Most club teams generally aren't familiar to people beyond their own hinterland. But the new All-Ireland champions had a few high-profile figures whom you couldn't help feeling happy for when finally their ship came in.

"It's the greatest day of my life," said Shane 'Cake' Curran, almost 42 and still speeding into his kickouts like a man whose togs are permanently on fire.

It wasn't just because he'd been around so long that people were wishing him well. It's also because he's that most uncommon of creatures in team sport – a free spirit. As a goalkeeper, his job is to patrol what Michael O'Hehir used to call the large parallelogram. But the large parallelogram was never large enough for a personality that overflows with spontaneous energy and a sort of fearless optimism. He has natural funny bones too, but this ability to make people laugh shouldn't obscure his technical soundness as a 'keeper, or a competitive courage that hasn't shrunk one iota in the face of middle age.

Curran's popularity in the Irish sporting landscape gave St Brigid's a public face, a back story, a sprinkling of romance. If last Sunday brought him the greatest day of his life, watching him celebrate on the pitch afterwards was life-enhancing for the rest of us too.

Then there was that chap at the other end of the field, another Rossie touched by the maverick's hand – one Francis Anthony Dolan. Or, to give him his more informal handle, Frankie-Dolan-and-the-bould-head-of-it. At 34, Frankie's fire hasn't diminished much either.

Twenty minutes in he landed a peach of a '45 and then went looking for the Ballymun player who'd been trying to distract him as he addressed the ball. Eyes blazing, he unleashed a volley of verbals at the same player, and kept going. In the second half he kicked three priceless points from play.

The last of these was so priceless it has bought him a slice of immortality. It was the winner, delivered in injury time with everything on the line.

As the pressure escalated through the second half, various Brigid's defenders were executing steals and turnovers that killed any number of threatening attacks. Ronan Stack was marvellously calm and concentrated in his work, repeatedly making contact in the tackle that was subtle but critical.

Then another of their foot soldiers, Niall Grehan, made the most crucial turnover of the lot. With Ballymun stringing another passing sequence together, he pounced in front of the receiving player and launched the decisive counterattack. Four passes later, the ball was dropping into Dolan's path.

We know about the shot that has already passed into folklore. It was what he did before he kicked it that really showed his nerve. It happened so quickly that it took the benefit of a few replays to fully appreciate it.

The handpass into him hung in the air a fraction too long. Frankie was running onto it and in that split-second made an instinctive decision. He could've attacked the ball and tried to catch it before it bounced. It would have been the safer option; a Ballymun player was sprinting back to intercept. But he'd have lost his shooting angle; he'd have had to circle back. Instead he waited; he actually delayed long enough to let the ball run across his body. The opponent came diving in; it was knife-edge close. But it worked: Dolan smuggled the ball on the hop and hurdled the prostrate player without losing his momentum. A quick shuffle took him away from the next defender; the left foot did the rest.

Experience, bottle, class: it was all there in that moment.

Those three qualities were stamped, too, on almost everything that their other big guns produced on the day. Like Dolan, Karol Mannion and Senan Kilbride also delivered major displays in what was for Brigid's a now-or-never final.

Kilbride gave a masterclass in the full-forward role. Once they reached midfield with the ball, his team-mates invariably scanned

the inside line to find him. And all day he showed up, the targetman for high deliveries, or drifting into channels well away from the square. He finished with 1-3 from action in a performance that mixed a formidable physical presence with clever link play and quality finishing.

Mannion supplied him with some of his best bullets, most notably the perfectly-weighted delivery on 11 minutes that dipped behind the full-back and released Kilbride for the goal that stabilised them. An elegant footballer, comfortable off left and right, Mannion epitomised the football craft that perhaps gave Brigid's their marginal edge in the end.

The word from the Ballymun camp afterwards was that their opponents had been impressively gracious in victory. They showed some style off the pitch as well as on it. Presumably they showed a bit more, too, when they got home to south Roscommon on Sunday night for the celebrations.

It's unthinkable that Frankie and Cake, not to mention managers McStay and McHale, didn't turn up to bust a few moves with their disco pants on.

Irish Independent

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