Gaynor goal launches comeback
Portlaoise dig deep to produce nine-point turnaround and set up Brigid's showdown
At times in the second half at O'Moore Park yesterday, it was hard to credit that you were actually watching the same team that started the match.
When Brian Gaynor slalomed through a helpless Rathnew defence, caught flat-footed by the incisive passing between Paul Cahillane and Brian Smith, to tuck away a magnificent goal on 37 minutes, the scale of the transformation was at its acutest point.
Were these the same Portlaoise players who were second best in just about every aspect for the first half-hour, as a revived Rathnew made little of a rare Wicklow county final defeat seven days earlier to bounce back in impressive style?
"The best football we have played in quite a while," remarked Rathnew boss Harry Murphy, for whom this was a last game in charge before he commits fully to Wicklow.
But Portlaoise had been comparably pedestrian in that first half, perhaps themselves feeling the effects of a hard game the previous weekend against Louth champions St Patrick's, which they only won after extra-time.
The loss of Kieran Lillis and Barry Fitzgerald may also have shaped an indifferent first half, as the home side really struggled to match the power and aggression of Rathnew's James Stafford, particularly around the middle third.
Stafford was red-carded in the county final and was due to be suspended, but was cleared under a technicality by the Wicklow County Board.
Gaynor's goal gave Portlaoise the lead (1-8 to 0-9) for the first time and from four points down at the break -- 0-8 to 0-4 -- they went on to complete an impressive nine-point turnaround.
Essentially, they ran a tiring Rathnew into the ground and made their passes stick to much better effect than in the first half. Brian McCormack, Craig Rogers, Paul Cahillane, former St Vincent's All-Ireland club medal winner Hugh Coughlan and Brian Smith all showed slick hands and great vision to build quick momentum early in the second half.
The experienced Colm Parkinson also played a big part throughout until he tired late in the game and was replaced by a substitute of his own vintage, Ian Fitzgerald.
On the evidence of the second half, Portlaoise will more than test the Dublin champions St Brigid's in two weeks' time. But Rathnew showed how vulnerable they can be to quick, direct ball.
Leighton Glynn was out of the traps early, winning ball confidently ahead of Tommy Fitzgerald who had been detailed to mark him in the corner away from his more natural environs of centre-back.
But by the 10th minute, it was obvious to the Portlaoise management that Fitzgerald was in trouble as Glynn glided comfortably into position to pick off two points that helped Rathnew into a 0-4 to 0-1 lead.
With Stafford dictating matters at midfield and Tommy Gill making good use of his possession from centre-forward, the former Wicklow kingpins showed little effect of their disappointing reversal in their county final seven days earlier.
Portlaoise could get no early traction and even after Cahir Healy had stepped in to quell Glynn, there was still no sense that they were secure in their full-back line. Healy was subsequently booked and Portlaoise had cause to question some of referee Syl Doyle's decisions in that first half.
At the other end, Parkinson kept the home fires burning with a couple of points and they might have got more from a decent build-up that involved Paul Cahillane and Brian McCormack on 18 minutes, but Brian Smith just couldn't connect and the chance was lost.
Once Glynn fired over Rathnew's fourth point their lead was always comfortable for the remainder of the half and their 0-8 to 0-4 lead was just about right. But they weren't prepared for what was to come after the break.
Three Cahillane frees and a point from play by the stylish McCormack reduced the gap to a point in the opening seven minutes of the second half before Gaynor unleashed his shot.
When Parkinson ended a wonderful move out of their own defence involving McCormack, Rogers and Smith, Rathnew must have sensed the roof was caving in.
They had lost Stephen Byrne to injury at half-time and that was felt as the home side poured through. By the 49th minute Portlaoise were six clear, 1-13 to 0-10 and coasting.
Portlaoise captain Rogers echoed the sentiment of his manager Mark Kavanagh by stressing that they were not spooked by their first-half display.
"We were very calm and composed we felt we were after creating chances," he said. "We just felt our aggression and tackling wasn't high enough and we thought if we improved those two things, we would get back into it, which we did."
Murphy admitted fitness was a big difference in the end.
"We really opened them up and looked good at half-time, but then we lost the two Stephens (Byrne and Kavanagh) at a bad time. It put us under pressure," he said.
"The goal was really what turned the game. They started to open us up then and we were chasing. The field seemed to get a lot bigger at that stage. In fairness to the lads, they battled to the end, we couldn't have asked for any more and we were beaten by a better side on the day."
Scorers -- Portlaoise: P Cahillane (3f), C Rogers (2f), 0-4 each, C Parkinson 0-3, B Gaynor 1-0, B McCormack 0-2, B Smith 0-1. Rathnew -- L Glynn 0-6 (4f), T Gill 0-4 (3f), N Mernagh 0-2.
Portlaoise -- M Nolan; T Fitzgerald, K Fitzpatrick, B Mulligan; B Gaynor, C Healy, C Boyle; B Glynn, H Coughlan; C Parkinson, C Rogers, A Kelly; P Cahillane, B McCormack, B Smith. Subs: I Fitzgerald for Parkinson (56), E Whelan for Kelly (58).
Rathnew -- J Hollingsworth; A Clarke, D Power, P Merrigan; S Byrne, S Canavan, D Franey; J Stafford, N Mernagh; S Kavanagh, T Gill, E Franey; P Ellis, M Doyle, L Glynn. Subs: E Doyle for Byrne (ht), C Healy for Merrigan (49), R O'Brien for Franey (49), B Mernagh for Kavanagh (50), P Murphy for Ellis (54).
Ref -- Syl Doyle (Wexford).