Northern lights shine brightly for Strokestown

The day had begun with torrential rain on a scale which, had this been a few years ago, would have had the solemn ‘match off’ texts pinging. These days, in the Hyde we trust.

By mid-afternoon, the morning’s relentless rain had given way to pleasant conditions. There was a very big crowd in Hyde Park for a county final that had captured the public imagination.

I passed on the press box, instead taking a seat in the stand below, where the excitement of the supporters merged with nervousness. There was a great atmosphere as two proud northern clubs claimed rights on centre stage.

Early on, there were indications that the occasion might be getting to Boyle, the weight of history a growing burden on their shoulders. They were battling to find their best form, and a battle it was. Still, they led by two as the first half entered a marathon injury-time period.

Those ‘extra’ nine minutes were sadly required due to  lengthy delays following separate injuries to Boyle’s Cian McKeon and Strokestown’s Paddy Brogan. It was a shame to see their participation end so early, and particularly in such circumstances. Both players are in our thoughts this week.

For favourites Boyle, the prospect of being two in front at half-time in a low-scoring, nervy, ‘high stakes’ game must have seemed very appealing. But no such prize awaited. In a key phase, Strokestown pounced for two late first-half scores. It meant the teams were level at the break, Strokestown the happier. It was no classic, but we were all invested in this dogged battle of wills.

Scores in the third quarter were as rare as expressions of regret from Donald Trump. Donie Smith ventured deep from time to time in a gallant effort to do the work of a few men. He could have done no more.

Further back, his brother Enda was not quite having the expected impact. There were few of the trademark runs for which Smith is renowned. He is of course judged by the highest of standards. Enda did score one excellent point, and a superb pass to Daire Cregg around the half hour mark created the game’s only goal chance, the Boyle attacker’s drive from the right whizzing just wide.

Entering the business end, that weight of history was undoubtedly taking its toll on Boyle, desperate to win a first senior title in 95 years. Still, they were edging towards the winning post. Yet it was nicely set up for Strokestown, who stuck to their game plan and maintained their belief. All the pressure was on Boyle. Strokestown had a number of players who could sense that there was a title here to be won, a chance to dance with destiny.

With the exchanges incredibly tense and close, Boyle went two ahead again, but Strokestown drew level. Roars from the stands were steeped in nervousness. Donie Smith put Boyle one clear, but Colin Compton and Diarmuid McGann replied for a Strokestown team of tremendous heart and resilience. Suddenly Strokestown were in front at that point when supporters (and the man in black) are beginning to check how much time is left.

Four extra minutes. A Strokestown attack broke down – ironically, eventual match-winner Tony Lavin spilt possession – and seconds later Donie Smith levelled with a long-range free. It was an epic score, particularly given the circumstances. I thought referee Ollie Kelly (who officiated very well) would call time, but he didn’t. Strokestown attacked; Diarmuid McGann passed to the overlapping Tony Lavin. You could almost hear the collective intake of breath around the stadium. Standing beside the dugouts, subs and mentors (of both teams) froze, their fate in Lavin’s hands. Even history had to wait. The Strokestown man kept his nerve and lobbed the ball over – and that proved to be the day’s punchline.

It was a very, very tough day for Boyle. They gave it everything. At times they looked the likely winners; when Smith boomed that amazing late free over, it appeared they had secured extra-time. Next season, a host of established performers from around the county will expectantly amble back towards the stage, but the quality in Boyle’s ranks – that, and this raw, brutal experience last Sunday – tells us they will chase the dream again. For now it’s heartbreak, but these lads can bounce back.

For Strokestown, being crowned 2022 county champions is a sensational achievement. Sean Mullooly, Diarmuid McGann, David Neary, Colin Compton and Shane McGinley were just some of their players who caught the eye, but they are all heroes. The most outstanding of all was Colm Neary, who seemed at times to have his own ball. Then there was Tony, who ended the tension and sprinkled stardust on Strokestown.