Club game shines in the depths of winter
St Vincent's and Portlaoise serve up football feast in epic final
The AIB All-Ireland club football championship can sometimes be overrated because the fans tend to regard the games as closely related to the inter-county game.
In reality, however, there are many poor enough teams in the club competition and their popularity is based more on the GAA environment from which these clubs spring than the quality of the games in the early rounds.
But as you reach the last eight teams, quality certainly does become more obvious and we got a great example of that in Tullamore yesterday. St Vincent's and Portlaoise served up a marvellous, entertaining game that will put many of the upcoming National League contests in the lower divisions to shame.
Particularly as we are now in mid-December and the participating clubs have been greatly overworked in recent weeks to overcome fixture backlogs not of their own making.
The excellent condition of O'Connor Park was also a big factor, but the desire of both teams to play open and positive football was a welcome change from some of the more negative games we see at inter-county level.
Vincent's won because they were a little bit cuter when it mattered most in the closing quarter. At a time when both sides were showing signs of fatigue after massive earlier efforts, it was the sharp thinking of the Dublin county players – in particular Ger Brennan, Diarmuid Connolly and former Dubs star Tomás Quinn, who kept thinking on their feet as both sides scrambled desperately for the points that would land the title.
In the final quarter they outscored Portlaoise by five points to two, which decided the game and, with many Portlaoise players resorting to handpassing in order to get within scoring range, the Vincent's backs simply pulled down the shutters.
Earlier Portlaoise had been playing very positive, direct football that often found out those same backs.
Overall the quality of forward play for mid-December was fantastic, with an astonishing combined tally of 6-21 points.
However, Vincent's will seldom get the easy goal chances they had in the first half when the hesitant Portlaoise defence let Ciaran Dorney and Ruairi Trainor in to raise the green flag.
These were the scores that cost Portlaoise the game in the end, for even though they drew level at half-time, they had been playing with a strong wind and would have needed a cushion of several points.
Maybe the fact that the losers changed their team from the line-out in the programme, including all the published backs, was meant to confuse Vincent's, but the opposite was the case and the holes in their backline could have led to more goals if Vincent's had more penetration.
In the second half, the backline was realigned somewhat and apart from another goal in the 40th minute, the Dublin champions were largely confined to Quinn pointed frees, something their semi-final opponents Ballinderry will surely have noticed.
There were some fabulous scores. Bruno McCormack's point for Portlaoise in the 45th minute under massive pressure was the best of them, but Paul Cahillane also scored brilliantly.
Some tactical ploys used by Vincent's were crucial to their success, particularly the roaming of Dublin star Connolly, who seemed to attract two or three players every time he touched the ball in the first half, thus providing openings for colleagues.
The adventurous play of wing-back Brendan Egan played havoc with Portlaoise and it was strange that they did not take steps to curtail him.
Overall, this was a great game of football, very manly and sporting, with St Vincent's just that bit smarter when it mattered most. But Portlaoise lost absolutely nothing in defeat this time.