Castlerahan escape cycle of defeat to land maiden Cavan crown
Castlerahan 2-11 Crosserlough 1-13(Cavan SFC final)
Castlerahan captain Ronan Flanagan cleared his throat on acceptance of the Oliver Plunkett Cup and summed up the prevalent feeling in Kingspan Breffni Park after this Cavan senior final in just two words: 'At last.'
For a team that had lost the last three finals to different opponents on each occasion, they'd have taken a win in any circumstances.
But to come from six points down at the three-quarter mark, with that weight of recent and painful history behind them against an energetic and fearless Crosserlough side, really was a victory to savour.
The thought of leaving the ground empty-handed for the fourth successive October Sunday drove them on. But equally, it could have crushed them. And for much of this game it looked like it would.
As a contest, it was a fantastic spectacle, both sides deserving credit for their willingness to attack on a new pitch surface that encouraged such an approach.
The match hinged on a couple of frantic minutes midway through the second half. Crosserlough, with an average age of just less than 22, had paid no respect to Castlerahan's 'next-in-line' status in the county for so much of the game, hitting them hard, breaking fast and playing a thrilling brand of football times at times to engineer that six-point lead.
Another telling piece of approach work between Enda Gaffney and 18-year-old Patrick Lynch - who threaded a great ball through to James Smith posted at full-forward - yielded Crosserlough's only goal on 46 minutes and sent their large following in the 8,469 crowd into ecstasy at the thought of the title coming back to the famed club for the first time since 1972 when they completed seven-in-a-row. Victory against the odds was in their grasp, compounding the already frayed nerves of their more experienced opponents.
Castlerahan, guided for the last two years by former Cavan manager Donal Keogan, quickly worked the ball down the other end of the field however and when the veteran Sean Brady was adjudged to have been brought down in the Crosserlough goalmouth they had a reprieve in the form of a penalty within just a minute.
Enda Flanagan's shot was initially blocked by goalkeeper Anthony Smith but in follow up Oisin O'Connell connected to beat him a second time to provide Castlerahan with timely, if slightly fortuitous, momentum. In a game that was ebbing and flowing at such a pace, that break was everything and Castlerahan could sense that this really was their time.
Their most experienced hands put together a chain of passes to swing the game even more firmly in their favour just four minutes later with Cian Mackey and Ronan Flanagan combining to put Brady through for a bullet of a goal to bring parity, 2-10 to 1-13.
There were still nine minutes of regulation time and a further five minutes of added time to play but just one more point was scored, the decider coming from a Mackey free after Paul Smith was fouled by Paul McEvoy. Even then Mackey's kick just about cleared the distance but on such fine margins these tight games are won The influence of Mackey and Ronan Flanagan was telling down the home straight.
It had all started so well for them with O'Connell popping over two points from their first two attacks within 90 seconds.
When the game settled however it was Crosserlough who found a better rhythm. They were full of energy and brought pace and youthful exuberance to their play. At 30 Enda Gaffney was easily their oldest player but the majority of the rest were product of a very progressive underage system the club undertook in the previous decade that is now reaping dividends.
Keogan was keen that Castlerahan would not sit back as they did in last year's final against Cavan Gaels but in their desire to press forward they left gaps at the back which Pierce and Stephen Smith and Patrick Lynch were happy to exploit while, in Gaffney, they had a real outlet in the inside line.
In defence the likes of David Shalvey, Patrick O'Reilly and John Cooke took turns to make big tackles and interceptions that helped build confidence.
When they reflect they'll rue the number of goal chances and even half-chances that they spurned. Points taken may well have been developed into goals with a slightly more ambitious approach, none more so than their final point before the half from McEvoy which gave them a 0-8 to 0-6 lead.
They kicked on in the third quarter with half-back Mart Stuart covering the ground to score two points and when James Smith goaled you could only see one result.
But Keogan has detected deep resolve all year - both teams won their semi-finals after replays - and sensed there would be a response.
"The difference between this year and last year is that we went at them for the entire game. We never stopped attacking," figured Keogan.
Motivating them to scale the heights again wasn't a problem, he added. "Right from the start of the year these boys wanted to get back here today and right the wrongs.
"Had we lost four-in-a-row I don't think so," he said, reflecting on their capacity to come back again. "We showed huge character, resolve and hunger in that last quarter. I think that thought of not getting across the line actually drove us across it."
Scorers - Castlerahan: O O'Connell 1-3, S Brady 1-1, C Mackey 0-4 (4fs), E Flanagan 0-3. Crosserlough: P Smith 0-5 (2fs), J Smith 1-0, P Lynch (1 '45), S Smith, M Stuart 0-2 each, P McEvoy, D Gaffney 0-1 each.
Castlerahan - J Leahy; S Cooney, F Reilly, E O'Connell; P Smith, C Daly, R Flanagan; D Wright, P Smith; S McSweeney, B Ennis, C Mackey; E Flanagan, O O'Connell, S Brady. Subs: K Cosgrove for Ennis (41).
Crosserlough - A Smith; D Shalvey, P O'Reilly, J Cooke; M Stuart, D McVeety, S McVeety; P McEvoy, C Rehill; S Smith, P Smith, D Gaffney; E Gaffney, J Smith, P Lynch. Subs: B McKiernan for Gaffney (57), B Boylan for Gaffney (57), E Smith for S McVeety (61).
Ref - C Dourneen (Ballinagh)