Wooden heart-breaker

AIB Connacht Club SFC Final Ballina Stephenites         2-8 St. Brigids                       0-12 Roscommon senior football champions St. Brigids were denied a second Connacht senior football title in a row by the width of a crossbar at the end of this breathtaking and thrill-a-minute final played at James Stephens Park, Ballina last Sunday when Mark O’Carroll’s rasping shot cannoned off the woodwork and away to safety in the dying seconds of a game that Brigids deserved to win.   In the 2006 final, Karol Mannion’s last-minute shot flew into the top corner of the Corofin net to give Brigids a dramatic win, but this year it was not to be as Anthony Cunningham’s men were cruelly denied after a frantic, hard-hitting and most enjoyable final.    This was a game that Brigids deserved to win. However they simply missed too many chances, and particularly scoreable frees, throughout the game – and when you add the fact that at least one of the two goals they conceded has to be categorised as soft – you get a picture of how the result of this fascinating game came about.    Hindsight always produces 20/20 vision, but the loss of Shane Curran, who had not recovered from an injury sustained in the semi-final, was crucial. James Martin is a good young goalkeeper and will be a fine replacement for Shane Curran whenever the former county star decides to hang up his boots, but it was not his day on Sunday last and he was most unfortunate to concede a crucial penalty in the middle of the first half which led to Ballina’s second goal.   However at the other end Brigids spurned too many chances when they were on top and it was a day to forget for the captain, Frankie Dolan, who missed a number of scoreable frees, particularly in the second quarter.   While it wasn’t the greatest game ever played in terms of quality, it was still a rip-roaring affair played in a great atmosphere as Brigids’ huge folllowing roared on their team.    The game started in spectacular fashion. David Brady won a free from the throw-in. He lobbed a high ball towards the Brigids goal and corner-forward Stephen Hughes fielded well, before guiding the ball past Martin for a goal that was scored inside 20 seconds!   It set the tone for a game which was played at breakneck pace with the challenges were flying in hard – but fair – throughout.    Less than a minute later Frankie Dolan set up Cathal McHugh for a good Brigids point but Ballina were on top in the first quarter, especially at midfield, where David Brady and Ronan McGarrity were ruling the roost.    In the 7th minute Brady kicked a lovely point from 25 metres after Robbie Kelly’s clearance had gone astray. However Brigids were getting into the game slowly and John Tiernan powered through for a great point on the run after an excellent pass from Karol Mannion. Then two minutes later David Brady extended the Ballina lead to three after he kicked over from 30 metres following a great pass from McGarrity. In the 12th minute Ger Brady opened his account with a well-taken score on the left wing from 25 metres out.    Brigids may have been struggling a bit at midfield at this stage but their attack always looked dangerous when they got the ball and none moreso than Senan Kilbride, who was to go on to play his best-ever game for his club.    In the 13th minute Kilbride took a pass from John Tiernan and ‘split the posts’ with a great point and a minute later he rattled over the score of the game up to then, from 35 metres, having received a pass from Karol Mannion. Suddenly Brigids were back within two points.   With just fourteen minutes on the clock disaster struck again for the Roscommon champions.    James Martin collected a weak kick and moved to his left to clear. However his path was blocked by Stephen Hughes and he turned back across his own goal. He hopped the ball once and then he hopped the ball again – but didn’t catch it the second time – as Hughes put him under pressure. Referee Michael Duffy blew the whistle and appeared to be awarding a 13-metre free until he belatedly spread his arms to signal a penalty.    It was a controversial award as the goalkeeper appeared to have been tackled inside the small square, however it was a fatal mistake for James Martin to have travelled back across his own line. Pat Harte fired the spot-kick hard and high into the top right-hand corner for Ballina’s second goal.   Liam Brady pointed a close-range free after a foul on Hughes a minute later and now Brigids had a mountain to climb because they were six points down – 2-4 to 0-4 – after only 17 minutes of play.    At this stage Brigids began to play the type of football that we have seen from them over the past two seasons. Karol Mannion and particularly Mark O’Carroll began to win the midfield battle and the Brigids forwards saw more of the ball. However, despite being on top, the wides total began to mount and Frankie Dolan missed three scoreable frees – and David O’Connor missed another – in the ten minutes before half-time.   In the 19th minute a brilliant Brigids move involving Cathal McHugh and John Tiernan  resulted in Garvan Dolan being found free inside the Ballina defence, but his delayed shot was parried away to safety by David Clarke and a great goal chance was gone.   In the 21st minute the rampant Senan Kilbride scored another gem of a point and in the 26th minute Mark O’Carroll took advantage of a poor Ballina clearance to kick Brigids’ sixth point and leave them only four adrift at the break. In truth it should have been much closer and despite the concession of the two soft goals Brigids should have been at least level at half-time. Half-time score: Ballina 2-4 St. Brigids 0-6.   Brigids came out in the second half and took the game to Ballina. The tension and atmosphere rose several notches as Brigids turned the screw. The excellent O’Carroll powered in for another great point in the 2nd minute and Karol Mannion narrowed the gap to two with a point after a super pass from Frankie Dolan. Then when Senan Kilbride kicked probably the score of the game after a move involving seven Brigids players, the gap was down to one.   The game was now in the melting pot. In the 14th minute referee Duffy sent off Ballina corner-back David O’Mahoney for a second yellow card offence and it looked odds-on now that Brigids could go on to win it.   But that’s not what happened. Ballina were the team who were now inspired. Livewire corner-forward Hughes kicked over a crucial point in the 15th minute to increase the gap to two and in the 9th minute Liam Brady was on target from 30 metres with a free. It was frantic stuff now. Cathal McHugh and sub Darragh Blaine combined to create a goal chance with ten minutes to go but David Clarke was equal to it and he made another great save.   Liam Brady kicked another crucial point from a free for Ballina with ten minutes to go and although Brigids were doing well it was Ballina who were edging closer to the finishing line with crucial scores. The hits were coming harder and faster now as every ball was contested with frightening ferocity.   Frankie Dolan kicked over a close-in free with eight minutes to go and sub Padraig Kilcommons narrowed the gap to three with a well-taken point in the 29th minute. The sideline official signalled four minutes of stoppage time and when Frankie Dolan, who had been a little fortunate not to receive a second yellow some minutes earlier, was presented with a 13-metre free in the 31st minute, he took the correct option and kicked a point to leave only two in it.   Brigids now laid siege on the Ballina goal and in the 33rd minute it looked like a late goal was going to do the trick again as Mark O’Carroll powered through, took a sidestep and blasted the ball goalwards. However the Brigids followers recoiled in horror as the ball came back off the crossbar and was cleared away to safety – and the dream was over shortly afterwards. Then Brigids’ sub Darragh Blaine was sent off for his second yellow card offence to complete a day of misery for the Roscommon champions.   I know that these words will not be of much consolation to St. Brigids this week as they lick their wounds, but they are still a club football team to be reckoned with and bar a major shock they will be the team to beat again in Roscommon next season.   They were desperately unlucky to have lost this game and on another day they could have won comfortably, but luck was not on their side last Sunday.   Robbie Kelly and Enda Ruane recovered after a shaky start to play well in the second half while Peter Domican and Niall Grehan was outstanding again in the wing half-back positions and both these young players are improving with every outing.    Karol Mannion and Mark O’Carroll took a while to get into the game but O’Carroll in particular was inspirational as Brigids fought  their way back into the game – and if anyone deserved to get the match-winning goal then it was him.   It was not a great day for the Brigids attack. Cathal McHugh was again excellent and he played his part in the Brigids’ challenge, but this was the day when Senan Kilbride came of age. He was sensational and an unselfish target man throughout. He also helped himself to four brilliant points and was instrumental in some clever, skillful moves. It was his best performance in a Brigids (or any other) jersey.    It was a day when the likes of Frankie and Garvan Dolan and David O’Connor were just not on form and the attack that tore Killererin to shreds in the semi-final wasn’t the same force last Sunday. However John Tiernan again did a lot of good work throughout the game.   Ballina did have their heroes on a great day for them. The fact that they did not play well but still won their third Connacht title will not bother them too much this week.    David Clarke was in great form between the posts and he made some crucial saves throughout. Colm Leonard and Shane Sweeney and substitute Enda Devenney were the pick of the home defence while David Brady and Ronan McGarrity were in and out of the game and they had a huge battle with Karol Mannion and Mark O’Carroll.    Up front Stephen Hughes was the most potent attacker on view and he was well assisted on the day by Ger and Liam Brady and Pat Harte.    So it’s heartache for Brigids at the end of 2008.  However with the players they have on their panel and the structures they have at the club I am certain that we have not seen the last of this very talented Brigids team. It’s just that this was not their day. Connacht Club Final