GAA Football

Naomh Éanna go down fighting to a Kevin McCarthy-inspired Kilcummin

Kilcummin's captain and goalkeeper Brendan Kealy lifts the AIB Intermediate Football Championship trophy after his side had defeated St Enda's in the final at Croke Park Picture by Seamus Loughran

AIB All-Ireland Intermediate Football Championship final: Kilcummin (Kerry) 5-13 St Enda’s Glengormley (Antrim) 2-9

WEDGED at the bottom of the club’s narrow lane by other cars trying to get in and out, the return of the St Enda’s Glengormley team bus back to the clubhouse on Saturday night was delayed by a few minutes.

Oblivious to the bottleneck outside, you could hear the players stamping their feet and singing their hearts out.

If you didn’t know any better you would have thought they had the precious silverware on board.

But they hadn’t.

The coveted All-Ireland Intermediate crown was spirited away to the little town of Kilcummin, three miles north of Killarney.

Led by the imperturbable Kevin McCarthy, Kilcummin proved worthy victors a few hours earlier in Croke Park.

The St Enda’s team bus squeezed its way up the narrow lane where hundreds upon hundreds of well wishers awaited them on the steps of the clubhouse.

Even in defeat, they were still the kings of the Hightown.

One by one, the players filed into a heaving lounge to a hero’s welcome.

And if the crowds were too much in the lounge area, you could always trip into the adjoining marquee where Irish folk music blasted deep into the small hours of Sunday morning.

Naomh Éanna, this little utopian pocket of Gaelic Games up on the hill, was rocking.

This season has been an unforgettable journey for the club that sits on the outer fringes of north Belfast.

Frank Fitzsimons’ young side clinched the Antrim and Ulster championships in fairytale style.

They followed those historic triumphs up with a wondrous All-Ireland semi-final victory over An Spidéal in Navan last month.

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Kerry and Munster champions Kilcummin stood between them and the Holy Grail at Croke Park on Saturday evening.

In the last, dramatic act of their season, their opponents from the south were just too damn good, too strong, too street-wise.

In the build-up to Saturday’s final, the nation’s media charted the harrowing history of St Enda’s and what the club had to endure during the ‘Troubles’, all for the love of playing Gaelic Games.

St Enda's Ryan Kennedy chases after Kilcummin's Kevin McCarthy Picture by Seamus Loughran

Afterwards, Kilcummin ‘keeper and former Kerry Allstar Brendan Kealy said: “I don’t take too much notice of the media coming up to a game but theirs is a very interesting story.

“St Enda’s are a phenomenal club in what they’ve been through. So we knew what it meant to them. We spoke about it at half-time; we knew they weren’t going to lie down, they were going to go to the end.

“We knew the history they had behind them. At the same time we knew it was going to be a game of football at the end of the day, 15 against 15 – the old cliché – and we concentrated on ourselves.”

Kevin McCarthy was named on the match programme as number 23, but the Kerry star was always going to start Saturday’s Intermediate decider.

From St Enda’s perspective, it’s a pity he’d recovered sufficiently from a broken hand because he won this contest virtually on his own.

The levels McCarthy reached under the Croke Park floodlights on Saturday evening were scandalous.

He bagged a mesmerising 3-7 from play - and he made it look easy.

McCarthy was what an elite footballer looks like up close on All-Ireland final day.

St Enda's manager Frank Fitzsimons with his team after the final whistle Picture by Seamus Loughran

After driving through the heart of the St Enda’s defence in opening minutes to set up Matt Keane for Kilcummin’s first of five goals, he helped himself to 1-1 soon afterwards.

Within seven minutes, the Antrim champions found themselves 2-3 to no score down.

“We’re a very young side,” said Fitzsimons, “but we showed a lot of courage. We could have just put the heads down and walked off at half-time absolutely hammered. But we went in at half-time and we had a chance.”

Eoin Nagle, a box of tricks at top of the right, scored a goal players only dream about.

Collecting a fizzed pass from Conan Lyttle, the slippery corner-forward rocketed the ball into the top corner of Kilcummin’s net after 14 minutes.

The St Enda’s supporters, loud and proud throughout, went into hysterics.

Could the men wearing black and amber mount the mother of all comebacks?

For a time they threatened exactly that.

Either side of Nagle’s work of art, the courageous Odhran Eastwood hit three points to reduce Kilcummin’s lead to 2-3 to 1-3, while Ruairi Scott’s scuffed finish on 21 minutes brought them to within two points of their opponents.

Kristian Healy, Eastwood and Nagle were tearing the Kilcummin defence to shreds, but Kieran Murphy and Shane McSweeney had built a wall at centrefield, used their runners from deep brilliantly and fed McCarthy with a clever supply of ball.

More trouble awaited the St Enda’s defence when ‘keeper Paddy Flood conceded a penalty and was black-carded for hauling down McCarthy in the 28th minute.

Kieran Murphy slotted the spot-kick past sub goalie Michael Morgan as the Kerry men led 3-6 to 2-4 at the break.

Defiant to the last, Ruairi Scott fired over two super points in the 43rd and 46th minutes but Kilcummin had already quelled the audacious uprising by that stage, as Kealy saved two goal-bound efforts from Kristian Healy.

A couple of devastating counter-attacks saw McCarthy punish St Enda’s with further goals in the closing stages.

But even though the game had slipped from their grasp Fitzsimons’ young charges never gave up.

James McAuley kept probing. An absolutely shattered Joe Maskey ran himself into the ground with little reward.

No matter how difficult it was to mark McCarthy, Killian Jennings, Damien Gault and Mick McNamee never shirked their responsibilities.

Ethan Gibson, the Healys and young Ciaran Thompson ignored the scoreboard and kept fighting to the last.

Nagle, Scott and Eastwood won their battles but, sadly, not the war.

“They were a smashing team, weren’t they?” sighed Fitzsimons afterwards.

“We were beaten by a far superior team… But I’ve never been as proud of a bunch of players as these lads. No matter what you tell them, they do it. Hopefully next year we’ll push on again.”

They mightn't have All-Ireland winners’ medals in their back pockets – but these St Enda’s players have won the hearts and minds of every club in Ireland.

What their journey has illustrated is that you don’t have to win every game you play to inspire the next generation.

As one St Enda’s club member posted on Twitter: ‘A huge thank you to the seniors. What a journey. The joy you’ve given my children over the last weeks and months is immeasurable. Roll on the Naomh Éanna bandwagon!’

Their legacy will glow like a beacon for a thousand years. Forever the kings of the Hightown.

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Kilcummin (Kerry): B Kealy; S O’Leary, D Maher, D Moynihan; P Casey, C O’Leary, W Maher; K Murphy (1-1, 1-0 pen), K Gorman; S McSweeney, G O’Leary (0-2), P Nagle; N Duggan (0-1 free), K McCarthy (3-7), M Keane (1-0)

Subs: J McCarthy (0-1) for P Nagle (44), I Devane (0-1) for N Duggan (54), D O’Leary for G O’Leary (55), K Teahan for K Murphy (58), M O’Shea for M Keane (60)

Yellow cards: D Maher (51)

St Enda’s, Glengormley (Antrim): P Flood; K Jennings, D Gault, M McNamee; C Lyttle, J McAuley, C McAuley; P Curran, J Maskey; P Healy, R Scott (1-2), K Healy; E Gibson, O Eastwood (0-7, 0-5 frees), E Nagle (1-0)

Subs: C O’Neill for P Curran (20), C Thompson for C McAuley (25, inj), N McKeown for E Gibson (53), R Kennedy for R Scott (58), D Walsh for K Healy (60)

Black card: P Flood replaced by M Morgan (21-22)

Yellow cards: P Healy (17)

Referee: J Molloy (Galway)

Attendance: 7,566

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