Lamh Dhearg late show sees off St John's to end long wait for Antrim senior county title
Northern Switchgear Antrim SFC final: Lamh Dhearg 0-15 St John's 0-13
YOU can call it 25 years but, in real terms, the hurt that Lámh Dhearg banished in a gripping Antrim decider yesterday ran all the way back to 1971.
Not since they’d beaten St John’s 46 years ago had the Hannahstown men won a championship on the pitch and it showed as they did everything that is required of champions. From the effervescence of Brendan McComb and Conor Murray, the fleeting class of Ciaran Flaherty, the robustness of Declan Lynch and the deadly accuracy of Paddy Cunningham, there was enough about their display to argue that they deserved to edge it.
Cunningham, playing in his sixth county final, was once more the scoring hero, hitting eight points including the cool finish that gave his side the crucial lead in stoppage time.
And in the true style of Dublin, injury-time was a complete mess. Referee Eamon McAuley, who was a central figure throughout, added two minutes and ended up playing nearly 11. That should tell you all you need to know.
In those 11 minutes, there were a total of three red cards, two black cards and two yellows brandished, with two of the dismissals coming courtesy of one of the more extraordinary incidents you might ever see on a football field.
With Lámh Dhearg having just gone two points up, Domhnall Nugent drove the ball off the tee at St John’s goalkeeper Padraig Nugent, who just happens to be his brother. Padraig reacted and, while it was a very brief and almost minor exchange, it was enough to earn the Johnnies’ goalkeeper a red card.
They played the last two minutes of stoppage time with no goalkeeper at all, which further underlines the crazy nature of the game’s conclusion.
The momentum had swung both ways throughout. St John’s had the better of the opening quarter, with replacement midfielder Jack Hannigan kicking two of his four at the start of a superb individual display.
Playing with the aid of the wind, the beaten side may come to regret setting up so defensively. Peter McCallin was the one-man forward line and, while he did well to win enough ball and pull Aaron McAufield wide, he was at times too isolated.
Lámh Dhearg were much more orthodox in their attacking approach and, with Brendan McComb allowed the freedom of Glenavy, he was the ultra-effective link man during the first half.
Conor Murray provided the incisions higher up the park, winning three scoreable frees in the first half despite the close attentions of Michael Bradley.
Four on the bounce, the pick of them a brilliant Brendan McComb effort off the outside of the right. Paddy Mervyn might have had a goal off a rare move that cut St John’s right down the middle, but blazed over off a move orchestrated by Domhnall Nugent again.
That left Lámh Dhearg 0-8 to 0-7 ahead and looking in a strong position, a lead which could have been wider had it not been for the misfortune of Ciaran Flaherty.
Ciaran Johnston’s attempted pass was cut out and, with Padraig Nugent off his line, the former Fermanagh player measured the 20-yard lob, but what would have been one of the great all-time county final goals came back off the underside of the bar.
The Johnnies hit the ground running on the restart. Jack Hannigan took a short kick-out off his ’keeper, carried his run the whole way up the pitch and finished brilliantly from a tight angle to level quickly.
And St John’s pushed 0-11 to 0-9 ahead, during which time they appeared to have a clear shout for a foul on Peter McCallin turned away.
When they hit their straps in the third quarter, it was off the back of a strong spell from their runners from deep as they started to pick holes in the white and red cover.
At the other end, the lively Eoin McKeown burst into the box and was pulled down, but referee McAuley decided the foul had been outside and awarded a 13-metre free.
Paddy Cunningham’s finish and follow-up free levelled the game and Kevin Quinn then kicked the Lámhs ahead from in front of the pocket of red and white in the corner.
After Hannigan had levelled, Conor Murray stood up with a big moment to kick his side back in front. Paddy McBride equalised as the clock ticked to 60 minutes, but the drama was only starting.
Conor Murray won a free that Cunningham dropped short, but St John’s gave the ball back to Ryan Murray trying to work it out and he recycled for Cunningham to step on to his left and kick Lámh Dhearg ahead. A skirmish ensued that led to black cards for Jack Hannigan and Ryan Murray, a yellow for Padraig Nugent and a red for Lámh Dhearg’s Terry Óg McCrudden.
Conor Johnston burst forward and looked to have been fouled in front of goal, but there was no free and Mairtin Lynch’s side broke. Cunningham won the ball inside and popped off for Declan Lynch to fist the clinching score.
“It’s sore, that length of time,” said Lámh Dhearg selector Stephen Lynch amid celebrations almost as breathless as the game itself.
“It’s sore to have been in so many finals and lost them in heartbreaking fashion, so I suppose we were due one. I do want to say my heart goes out to St John’s – what a team.
“The two matches against Cargin, they were brilliant. You could nearly have made the point that a draw would have been worthy today but we scraped through.”
And as untidy as the ending was, when it ended there was just elation and heartbreak, without any sense of recrimination.
“If you’re one or two points up in injury-time, you do what you have to to see the game out, whether it’s pulling men to the ground or kicking balls away or tees away,” conceded magnanimous St John’s boss
“That’s part and parcel of it, I accept that. I would have expected my players to do that, I have no issue with how the Lámhs saw the game out.
“I don’t think we brought our game to the table. As I said to the lads there, sometimes that happens in championship. We have to take it on the chin and move on.”
Move on they will. There will be county titles for St John’s some day soon. But this was about Lámh Dhearg and harnessing the heartbreak.
A word from Paddy Cunningham to finish: “I’d have come off without my head to win it.”
Lámh Dhearg: J Finucane; P Mervyn (0-1), A McAufield, M McGarry; D Lynch (0-1), M Herron, B McComb (0-1); P Fitzsimons, D Nugent; E McKeown, C Flaherty (0-1),
C Murray (0-1); P Cunningham (0-8, 0-5 frees), R Murray (0-1), K Quinn (0-1)
Subs: B Rice for McKeown (49), T Óg McCrudden for McComb (56), P Larkin for Mervyn (61)
Yellow card: C Murray (45), D Nugent (63)
Red card: T Óg McCrudden (63)
Black cards: B Rice (55) replaced by G Slane; R Murray (63) replaced by E McKeown
St John’s: P Nugent; A Douglas, C Garland, M Dudley; M Bradley (0-1), A Oliver, L Peden, Ciaran Johnston, P Donnelly; J Hannigan (0-4), R McNulty (0-1 free); P McBride (0-5, 0-2 frees), Conor Johnston (0-1),M Fitzpatrick (0-1); P McCallin,
Subs: C McEvoy for Peden (h-t), S Tierney for Ciaran Johnston (49), R Hannigan for Donnelly (54), C McGlade for McCallin (57)
Black card: J Hannigan (61) replaced by A Press
Yellow cards: M Bradley (33), Ciaran Johnston (34), M Dudley (41), A Oliver (44, 63), P Nugent (62)
Red cards: A Oliver (63), P Nugent (65)
Blood sub: C McEvoy for Oliver (3-11)
Referee: E McAuley (Cargin)