Castlebar go extra mile to end Brigid's dominance
Castlebar 3-13 St Brigid's 2-12
CONNACHT CLUB SFC FINAL
On murky afternoons like this, debate over long seasons, closed seasons and other such calendar and welfare concerns always seem so hollow.
The capacity of the provincial club championship to throw up a special match never seems to diminish.
Connacht had its turn in Dr Hyde Park with an epic contest that saw the fall of the reigning All-Ireland champions St Brigid's. Their quest for a fourth successive Connacht title eventually ran aground against a younger, fitter team, clearly liberated by lifting their first Mayo title in 20 years last month.
"Castlebar were known before for maybe having a soft centre in the past, well this Castlebar team has no soft centre," beamed manager Pat Holmes.
The new champions had to do it the hard way, as Brigid's played them off the park early on with some of the smartest football they have played, before Castlebar recovered to force extra-time in dramatic circumstances, territory they knew they would thrive in.
In between, they had to overcome the sending-off of their talismanic midfielder Barry Moran, red-carded in the 37th minute by referee Marty Duffy for a heavy challenge on Karol Mannion.
After Moran's departure Duffy sent off three more players, all from St Brigid's, including Ian Kilbride, who walked at the very end of normal time for a challenge on Tom King. Neil Douglas converted the free to force extra-time.
In real time it looked a harsh call on Kilbride, the only consolation being that Brigid's could restore their numbers back to 15 quite quickly.
But within minutes of the start of extra-time, St Brigid's full-back Daragh Donnelly had joined his colleague after an incident that followed his shot off an upright.
Again the jury was out on the merit of the card, with St Brigid's veteran goalkeeper Shane Curran insisting he had never seen Donnelly "do anything wrong on a football pitch".
Curran's contention that Duffy had "lost complete control of it" was not designed to take anything away from Castlebar's achievement.
"Some days these decisions go your way," he said. "There were 4,500 people there today and I don't think they can understand why he over-ruled his linesman when a Castlebar guy kicks the ball out of play two minutes into injury-time. Ridiculous.
"All I can tell you is I've never seen Darragh Donnelly sent off in my life. But look it, Marty made those decisions and they are the decisions that go with you. Castlebar showed great credit as well when they went down to 14 men to stick in there. You'll agree it was a very, very good game of football. Probably one of the best played here in a long time."
The third Brigid's player, Richie Blaine, was red-carded late in extra-time but that had little impact on a result that had already been put beyond doubt with points from substitutes James Durcan, Cian Costello and Danny Kirby in the second period of extra-time.
For Brigid's, it brings to an end a great run in the province. Their manager Benny O'Brien refused to blame Duffy for any incident and dwelled on self-inflicted mistakes instead.
"It is an easy option to point the finger at the referee and say he did this or did that," he said. "These things tend to balance themselves out. Okay, there were a couple of decisions you would feel aggrieved about but the referee was not the cause of us losing the game today."
On the equalising free, O'Brien was equally accepting. "It was indiscipline on our part because we would be very good at defending something like that and we didn't today. We were a bit rash and we should not have given away that free. Then we lost a man but we were able to supplement it in extra-time."
For the first half, Brigid's played football that had the precision of a set of architect's plans, spinning the ball around beautifully to make a mockery of the conditions and their opponents.
They looked every inch true champions, building up a 1-6 to 1-1 interval lead after Senan Kilbride's powerful drive on seven minutes to capitalise on Castlebar goalkeeper Ciaran Naughton's error in failing to hold a Dolan free gave them a 1-2 to 0-0 cushion.
Castlebar had chances to respond in kind but Neil Douglas blazed wide with one good opportunity before Danny Kirby made no mistake after good approach work in the 21st minute from Douglas.
Curran had a fine match overall before eventually retiring injured but the concession of a couple of frees, one for a needless advance off his line just after half-time, may have been pivotal in giving Castlebar impetus.
Moran's red card was the real motivator for the Mayo champions, however, as their game moved to a new level in response. Alan Feeney was magnificent driving forward from corner-back, Eoghan O'Reilly had a great second half at centre-back, Patrick Durcan grew into the game while Kirby provided so much power to the effort.
Up front, Tom King terrorised Brigid's defence in that second half, winning the penalty which Douglas converted for the lead, 2-5 to 1-6 on 38 minutes, before teeing up Richie Feeney for a third goal three minutes later.
But their 3-6 to 1-7 lead was shortlived. Alan Feeney was wrongly penalised coming out of defence to present Frankie Dolan with a free before Brigid's showed the mark of champions to regain the lead, Ian Kilbride's burst through the middle on 49 minutes setting up Blaine for another goal.
When Frankie Dolan eased over a point from 46 metres it looked like a moment to kill it off, but Castlebar kept pressing and got their reward through the resourceful Douglas from play and that late free.
Holmes recalled afterwards being five points down against Corofin in the Connacht semi-final two weeks ago.
"We had turned it round and there was no reason why we couldn't turn it around today. In fairness to the lads we started playing with more abandon and more vigour," he said.
And he knew they would have the legs for an extra push after Douglas had earned them 20 more minutes in the dying light. "We felt we were fresher, that it (extra-time) was going to suit us more than them. We knew if we got two or three scores it was going to be enough because everybody was out on their feet."
Scorers – Castlebar Mitchels: T King 0-6 (4fs), N Douglas 1-2 (1-0 pen, 1f), D Kirby 1-1, R Feeney 1-0, J Durcan 0-2, N Lydon, C Costello 0-1 each. St Brigid's: S Kilbride 1-3 (0-2fs), F Dolan 0-5 (3fs 1 '45'), R Blaine 1-0, C McHugh, P Kelly, N Grehan, A Gleeson 0-1 each.
Castlebar Mitchels – C Naughton; D Newcombe, T Cunniffe, A Feeney; R O'Malley, E O'Reilly, P Durcan; B Moran, A Walsh; N Douglas, T King, G McDonagh; R Feeney, D Kirby, N Lydon. Subs: F Durkan for McDonagh (54), S Hopkins for Walsh (56), R Kelly started extra-time for Moran (red carded), J Durcan for O'Malley (74), C Costello for Lydon (76).
St Brigid's – S Curran; R Stack, D Donnelly, N Grehan; N McInerney, G Cunniffe J Murray; K Mannion, G Ahern; I Kilbride, G Dolan, P Kelly; F Dolan, S Kilbride, C McHugh. Subs: A Gleeson for McHugh (28), R Blaine for G Dolan (h-t), G Dolan for McInerney (47), D O'Connor for Kelly (58), D Joyce started extra time for I Kilbride (red carded), P Kelly for Grehan (66), M O'Carroll for Mannion (70), S Mannion for Curran (74).
Ref –M Duffy (Sligo)