Breen strike completes Na Piarsaigh fightback
SEAN STACK'S face is a map of many things but, as the beginnings of a grin played across his lips in Walsh Park yesterday, he couldn't but acknowledge his guilt as a rogue.
All week, the former Clare great publicly cursed Na Piarsaigh's predicament of having to fill a six-week vacuum since winning their first ever Limerick senior county title. "That was a lot of baloney," their manager chuckled now, the team a whooping blur of back-slaps and bear hugs around him.
"The six weeks was actually a huge advantage," said Stack. "We might have been getting a little bit bored in the last week or two, but the long break allowed us to celebrate well and get the heads right again."
Their defeat of Ballygunner on Waterford soil had a booby-trap dimension to it, the Limerick champions coming from 0-11 to 0-4 down with 24 minutes remaining to snipe three goals in a decisive nine-minute surge.
"We looked like we were home and hosed," admitted a palpably shocked 'Gunner manager Niall O'Donnell.
"But there were a few small mistakes made and no one goes out to make them."
O'Donnell wasn't alone in believing his team had one foot in the Munster final. If anything, the city venue seemed to have fallen quiet under a heavy veil of presumption as Ballygunner eased through the gears with almost casual efficiency.
They led by a gale-assisted six points at the interval, Shane O'Sullivan bossing midfield and the likes of Philip Mahony and Wayne Hutchinson forming a formidable protective barrier in front of their full-back line.
Na Piarsaigh chose to leave just Kevin Downes and Adrian Breen close to goal but, for all the ball going in, they could have left two Saracen tanks.
Yet, hindsight points to little glimpses of Ballygunner complacency. Padraig Kennedy's short puck-outs continually found their targets without any conspicuous objection from the city forwards. Short of sending out leaflets in advance, the Na Piarsaigh goalkeeper's intentions couldn't have been more clear-cut, yet Ballygunner seemed indifferent.
And Breen inexplicably tried a spectacular overhead pull on a fine Shane Dowling delivery the one time in the first half that Na Piarsaigh got beyond Ballygunner's half-backs.
So sifting through the forensic, there were undeniably little warnings.
But the ever-consistent Paraic Mahony kept Ballygunner in the distance, and even a necklace of three splendid Shane Dowling frees (two from inside his own half) between the 43rd and 46th minutes convinced nobody that something epic was looming. Still, Stack's faith in his men was bombproof.
"You could be down nine or 10 points today against that gale and it wouldn't have been beyond overcoming," he told us. "The wind was carrying puck-outs down inside the '21s' one way and not reaching the '65' the other way."
The game changed irrevocably with just 12 minutes remaining. Stephen O'Keeffe seemed in no immediate danger when harvesting the latest in a long line of overhit Na Piarsaigh deliveries.
But the goalkeeper took a touch too many and, suddenly, found himself engulfed in traffic.
The sliotar spilled to Kevin Downes and, from maybe 20 yards, the young Limerick star rifled a wonderful goal.
Three minutes later, Hutchinson had an opportunity to clear, elected to handpass to Philip Mahony instead and an intercept allowed Kevin Ryan run at the Ballygunner full-back line before offloading to Dowling, who finished smartly.
Now, suddenly, every Na Piarsaigh man stood 10-foot tall.
"That's typical of first-time champions," Stack said later. "They get the monkey off their backs, then go and express themselves."
With three minutes of normal time remaining, Ballygunner leaked a third goal, their attempts to defend now turning slapstick. This time it was Barry Coughlan and Hutchinson at cross-purposes, leaving David Breen with so much time to apply the finish he could afford a fresh-air with his first swing, re-adjust, then pull again.
Brian Hartnett attached the sequins deep in injury-time, powering out onto a ball above Harley Barnes' head, cantering forward maybe 30 yards, then driving straight and true between the posts from near half-way.
Ballygunner weren't so much beaten now as bewildered.
As O'Donnell put it: "We had put ourselves in the position to win the match.
"But, for all three of their goals, we were in control of the ball and lost it. Three mistakes. Look, all credit to Na Piarsaigh.
"We didn't underestimate them in any sense whatsoever. We prepared for a very hard battle, but we thought we'd win today and everything was going right until about a quarter of an hour to go."
O'Sullivan and Paraic Mahony never waved the white flag and JJ Hutchinson looked swift and dangerous with what little possession came his way. But Na Piarsaigh just caught a momentum that wasn't to be reined in.
They now face Crusheen, champions of Stack's beloved Clare, in the provincial final on Sunday week, as only the fourth Limerick side to get this far in 17 years.
In Kieran Bermingham, James O'Brien, Hartnett, Ryan, Kieran Kennedy, Dowling and Downes, they had outstanding performers yesterday.
And Stack suggested this victory might be the precursor of something special. "There's something serious happening in the north part of Limerick city with this club," he told us.
"There's a serious movement with the GAA and young lads, so much improvement going on. And I'm so thrilled and honoured to be part of it.
"If you had seen these guys back in the ocean a few weeks ago on a horrendous Saturday morning, you'd know there was something special happening.
"Look, it's a building process. Hopefully we'll be a serious team within a year or two, but we're in this competition now so we'll give it a crack."
New champions maybe, but still hungry.
SCORERS: Na Piarsaigh -- S Dowling 1-4 (4f), K Downes and D Breen 1-0 each, K Ryan 0-2, B Hartnett, A Breen and P Gleeson 0-1 each. Ballygunner -- P Mahony 0-7 (5f, 1 '65), S O'Sullivan 0-2, D O'Sullivan, B O'Sullivan and JJ Hutchinson 0-1 each.
NA PIARSAIGH -- P Kennedy; C King, K Breen, K Bermingham; A Dempsey, J O'Brien, B Hartnett; P Gleeson, K Ryan; K Kennedy, D Breen, S O'Neill; S Dowling, K Downes, A Breen. Sub: A Hennessy for A Breen (49).
BALLYGUNNER -- S O'Keeffe; A Kirwan, W Kiely, B Coughlan; Philip Mahony, W Hutchinson, S Walsh; H Barnes, D O'Sullivan; Pauric Mahony, S O'Sullivan, A Moloney; Brian O'Sullivan, JJ Hutchinson, S Power. Sub: Barry O'Sullivan for Moloney (40).
Ref -- D Copps (Cork)