By Ian Cooney
The banter in the Connolly household will be good this week. For years, Niall Connolly has been listening to his father Dominick banging the same drum about being on the last team to beat Four Roads in a county final. Finally, the goalposts have been moved, and the music will be much sweeter for the Athleague captain from now on.
“I can’t put it into words. What we did for the last few years wasn’t good enough. This year, we put in a serious effort and I’m delighted to see it paying off. The sacrifices we’ve made, the things we’ve had to give up, missing out with families on the nights we go training — this makes it all worthwhile.
“It will easier to talk Dominick now because he was on the last team that beat them. Four Roads were the standard bearers for years. They put it up to everyone else to get to their standard, and I’m just delighted that we’ve finally got there,” he outlined as emotion crackled around him.
Seven minutes of injury time seemed like an eternity, leaving Four Roads’ challenge on life support.
“I had a good long chat with Aaron (Clogher) at that stage. Look, that’s just the level they’re at. They were always going to come back. Nothing really happened out there that we didn’t expect. Once the day was breezy, we knew that we’d take the breeze and open them up in the first half. We knew they’d come back but we always kept the scoreboard ticking over.
“Eamon Flanagan hit a free there (against the wind). A Four Roads player couldn’t hit them from 45 metres in the first half. He must have been 100 yards out. That’s what it is — we went the extra yard.
“Any time you win it, you want to drive on. But, for the moment, we just want to enjoy this,” he revealed.
Manager Seamus Qualter spoke about the way his side successfully managed the five-break between the semi-final and last Sunday’s final.
“It was a balance really, knowing that if we performed on the day that we had a chance. The five weeks (between the semi-final and the final) were very important. We were able to let some of the lads off to the Fuerty footballers and we stayed hurling away here. It just dovetailed nicely.
“We had no problem with fitness. The footballers like Darragh Heavey, Ben McGahon and Aengus Lyons had plenty of pace. We had a nice settled team all year,” he explained.
The margin of victory didn’t matter to Qualter. Athleague were prepared to take advantage of the hand they were dealt at all costs, particularly their backline.
“When I woke up this morning, there was a nice, strong wind. We decided to take the wind if we won the toss but we had to start well. We did that and were well ahead at half time. It could have been more but if you told me that we’d win by half a point this morning, I’d have taken it.
“Everything was built on our defence. We put them under serious pressure every time they tried to hurl a ball. We kept them to two points in the first half. We gave them very few frees, and kept that going again in the second half.
“I told them at half time that there was ten minutes in Four Roads, that they were going to pedal down and really have a go at it. But just getting one or two points in that 15-minute period (after half time) was very important to us, just to keep that two-goal lead. The finish was a bit hairy, but we’ll take it,” he concluded.