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'The feeling I had after that game was heartbreaking' - The anatomy of a Leinster final shock

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Mickey Graham celebrates Mullinalaghta's win over Kilmacud in last year's Leinster club football final. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Mickey Graham celebrates Mullinalaghta's win over Kilmacud in last year's Leinster club football final. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Mickey Graham celebrates Mullinalaghta's win over Kilmacud in last year's Leinster club football final. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

TOWARDS the frozen end of the second half of the second game in the Leinster club final trilogy of 1998 between Éire Óg and Kilmacud Crokes, Johnny Magee went down hard with an ankle injury.

Mid-December, and seemingly mid-apocalypse, it was, as Crokes forward Mick O’Keeffe told the AIB-sponsored 'Club Chronicles' mini-documentary about the saga, "like the trenches in the Battle of the Somme".

Magee, writhing in the mud, was simultaneously immobilised by agony and unable to lie still such was the excruciating cold.

When he finally rose, the distinctive purple and gold of Crokes was barely visible under the quilt of muck and earth on his jersey. After 60 torturous minutes, the score stood at 0-7 to 0-7.

It being a replay, match regulations stipulated extra-time.

Éire Óg’s frenzied pursuit of their equalising point had drained every last droplet of energy from the team, though. So Joe Murphy, one of their players and the current manager of the Carlow club, approached referee Brian White.

"I knew we were spent at that stage," he admitted in the film. "Extra-time wasn’t going to suit us. So I went over to Brian and I said: 'look Brian, my eyesight is very, very bad. It’s going to become a health and safety issue if we play extra-time. I can barely see now. If something happens, someone is going to have to be held responsible.' It was sort of a bluff, just to see if we could do anything.

"But I think Brian had enough of the day as well. He was freezing as well. So he said 'OK, we’ll go to a third game'.

That game was played on January 31, 1999 in Newbridge, the same venue as the first draw.

Ten minutes in, Éire Óg were 1-5 to 0-1 up. Their goal was scored by Willie Quinlan, who missed the second match after having two of his ribs broken in the first game after a collision he wrongly suspected had involved Magee.

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In the end, Éire Óg won by three.

The result devastated Magee, who had invested heavily in trying to win a second provincial title for his club after his grandfather passed away during the saga.

"I was trying to do it for my Mam, my father and my family," he reflected tearily all of 20 years later.

"The feeling I had after that game was heartbreaking. You put your whole life on hold."

The story of that game was retold as a classic of the club fairy tale genre, the small side overcoming disadvantages of population and size to knobble the big one.

Yet the histories of the two clubs at the time made a fallacy of the easy cliché.

"That was their fifth Leinster title in seven years," as Magee points out now. "And yet, for some reason, we were heavy favourites."

It wouldn’t be the last time Magee found himself in the role of vanquished Goliath in a Leinster club final.

Last year he was joint-manager of Crokes when they were beaten by Mullinalaghta, the half-parish on the Longford/Cavan border who became the first club from Longford to compete in a Leinster final.

The GAA nation rejoiced. Size didn’t matter after all.

Heart. Pride. Parish.

These were celebrated as forces far stronger than the benefits of numbers and facilities.

The Friday after the final, the Mullinalaghta squad made an appearance on The Late Late Show.

"That was pretty hard," Magee admits now.

"Like, Mullinalaghta didn’t have the monopoly on heart and desire and the sense of parish.

"That’s not why they beat us. They beat us because they played better in the final and fair play to them.

"Stillorgan is seen as this big, populated area and yeah, our membership has shot through the roof. But we’re still proud of our parish, even though it’s a bigger one.

"Any time we’ve won a county championship and you go on in Leinster there’s such a buzz and a vibe around the club.

"It brings everyone together and it’s a special thing to be part of. That’s the very same for a big, Dublin club as it is for a small rural one."

The anatomy of a Leinster club final shock is one Magee has studied in painful depth.

For a start, size is over-rated. Club success is about the blend of the people in your squad at the relevant moments, not the number of quality of players who don’t make it.

"People’s perception of club football is always coloured by their perception of inter-county football," he stresses.

Magee has won and lost in Leinster and he is convinced the intricacies of winter football are too unpredictable to negotiate without fortune and favour.

Late in the first game against Éire Óg in 1998, Ray Cosgrove bent a shot from under the stand in St Conleth’s Park towards the town end goal.

To most people in Newbridge that day, the curve of his kick had lured it comfortably inside the post, although the umpire waved for a wide.

Last year, as Magee recalls, Crokes conceded a penalty in the last minute to Mullinalaghta.

Paul Mannion had blazed a scorching trail through the Dublin and Leinster championships but a hamstring injury finally caught up with him.

Ditto Cian O’Sullivan.

And the extreme elements under which these games are played form the perfect conditions for a surprise.

"Club football in December is completely different to club football even at the end of October," Magee reckons.

"The ground is different.

"You can’t recover from making a mistake in winter football the way you can in summer football because of the conditions.

"Winter football is a huge leveller when it comes to pace around the field."

Experience is a strong currency.

Last year was Crokes' first Dublin SFC title in eight years and their turnover of players was such that only a handful had been part of their last Leinster campaign.

Mullinalaghta had completed a three-in-a-row of Longford titles and their graph in Leinster was pointing skyward after two competitive winters.

It stood to them against Crokes.

As the possibility of one of the shocks of the GAA season rose with each wasted Crokes possession and each turnover Mullinalaghta forced, the Longford side seemed to cling ever more tightly to their script while the Dublin team forgot theirs.

"We went away a bit from the game plan, which happens when you’re under pressure and you don’t have that sort of experience," Magee says. "We invited trouble on to ourselves and we got punished for it.

"But they were a much more experienced side than we were. The same with Éire Óg.

"They would have much more recent experience going into the Leinster championship than Ballyboden."

On Sunday, Éire Óg compete in their first Leinster final since beating Kilmacud Crokes on the last day of January, 1999.

They play a Ballyboden St Enda’s team who have made a habit this year of starting games slowly and finishing like a bullet train.

For all the Firhouse team’s expected presence in Portlaoise as soon as they won Dublin, Éire Óg are have been edging back to a provincial final these past three years.

And given how vivid their memory of their golden years is, they’ll have envisaged the possibility of being kings of Leinster again as soon as they won Carlow.

Other than St Vincent’s and Portlaoise (seven each), no team has as many Leinster titles as Éire Óg, and no-one in the competition’s history has had such a concentration of success as they had in those seven years in the nineties.

In an organisation as obsessed with tradition as the GAA, that can have a deep effect on a team’s mindset.

Seán Gannon, one of their key men this year, said as much last week.

"You’d have to have this goal in your sights. It’s attainable. It’s achievable," he stressed.

"It probably comes from the history of the club and the success in the nineties…we’re confident people."

As their manager, Joe Murphy prophetically predicted at the start of this year when he contributed to the AIB video about Éire Óg’s last great triumph.

 "This club is always chasing….that chase will always remain."

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