By Noel Fallon
Every tightly-contested match has a pivotal moment — an incident when everyone in the ground knows the game has swung irrevocably in the direction of one team.
When, in time to come, last Sunday’s rip-roaring, often enthralling, senior football final is dusted down and discussed, many will pick out Clann na nGael’s two-goal burst in the 44th minute as the defining sequence. Whatever about anything else, Jonathan Dunning and Cathal Callinan’s strikes will lead to references to the film ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ being rolled out frequently in Johnstown over the next few weeks. Others will point to the contentious sending-off of Gearoíd Cunniffe as the watershed moment.
However, I will plump for something different as the hinge on which the 2018 county final turned. It came with ten minutes left in normal time and with six points between the sides. Remember Clann weren’t trying to put any ordinary team to the sword. This was St. Brigid’s, a team who have reached the Everest of club football and were seeking their eighth Fahey Cup in nine years.
Then Donie Shine stood over a free near to the halfway line. He played a quick one-two to create space and from over 60 metres out sent a skyscraper soaring between the posts. There isn’t any coming back from a score like that. As Shine’s shot thudded into the netting at the back of the goal, everybody knew the die was cast.
Last Sunday had to be a poignant day for Donie Jnr. and his family when they thought about the late Donie Snr. who was so intrinsic to so many of Clann’s previous 20 county titles: Donie Jnr. continued the illustrious family tradition with aplomb.
Praise was lavished on Donie as he waited to receive the Fahey Cup. His place in the pantheon of great Roscommon footballers can be left for future fireside and barstool debates. What can be said with certainly is that few modern Roscommon footballers have revelled in the big day as much as Donie Shine, right back to when he burst into the county’s folklore and the national consciousness in 2006.
One of the highlights I have of Shine’s prodigious feats in 2006 is when he stood over the last free in the drawn All-Ireland final with Roscommon behind by one point. Donie had gone out to midfield to curb Tommy Walsh but the match was still slipping away. Donie did his calculations and one thing that was not going to happen with that last free was that it wasn’t going to go wide. The ball fell short, broke to David O’Gara and the rest is history.
Maybe Division Two and Division Three National League matches in early spring weren’t his thing, but Donie has always come alive on the big occasion. Think of the nerveless free to win the 2010 Connacht final, one of ten points he kicked that day against Sligo. He was one of the driving forces of Clann’s return to the top table in 2015 and he scored 1-7 last Sunday. Only Frankie Dolan in 2014 has scored more in a county final this century.
This was anything but a one-man show and Ciarán Lennon was TG4’s choice for Player of the Match. Lennon is a delightful footballer to watch. At times the 20-year-old seems to glide along the surface. He kicked 1-2 in the first half but his exquisite corkscrew shot on the turn which glided inside the right post two minutes into the second half was the highlight of his performance.
Like any good forward, Lennon sensed the goal chance was on when he got the ball from Emmet Kenny in the first minute and he took it. As was the case with Brian Stack’s early goal 12 months ago, the score set the tone for the winners and for the match.
Cathal Shine was Clann’s outstanding performer in the first half. He was the dominant figure at midfield, kicked a good point and drove his team forward relentlessly.
The 2018 edition enters the first rank of county finals. The cynics will say there hasn’t been too much competition over the last few decades. I went ambling down the caverns of football memory and a few sprang to mind. St. Brigid’s v Pearses in both 2005 and 2012 were good quality matches, as was Kilbride v St. Brigid’s in 2000 and St. Brigid’s v Roscommon Gaels last year.
However, the first half last Sunday produced the most sustained level of quality football that I can recall in a county final. Half-time disrupted the momentum and the standard dipped at the start of the second half. Then came the incident-packed, tumultuous series of events in the middle of the half followed by Clann’s remorseless surge for glory in the final quarter
A number of factors contributed to the high standard of play. Last Sunday was one of those golden October days that inspires poetry. It was even balmy in the Hyde Park press box, which is a rare phenomenon at any time of the year.
The pristine surface in the Hyde also lends itself to good football. It’s hardly a coincidence that both senior finals that have been played on the new Hyde surface have been high-scoring and above average.
Some of referee Paddy Neilan’s decisions will come under scrutiny, especially in Kiltoom, over the next few days, but nobody can deny the St. Faithleach’s had control of the match from the opening whistle and didn’t hesitate to make tough calls. Once he brandished a black card in the third minute to Dara Pettit, Clann’s match-winner in the semi-final, the teams knew that Neilan meant business.
The biggest factor in making the match so good was the attitude of both teams. As the more optimistic had hoped, Clann and Brigid’s brought out the best in each other. Both teams played free-flowing, attacking football which led to Senan Kilbride and Lennon kicking some glorious scores in the first half.
Brigid’s couldn’t get as much ball to Senan in the second-half as Clann closed down the space in front of the rampaging full-forward. Nonetheless, they contributed handsomely and valiantly to a thrilling match, even if the attendance was as traditionally small as Roscommon finals tend to me. Those who stayed away also missed the now-customarily lavish, information-laden county final programme which has been the hallmark of Hugh Lynn’s time as County Board PRO.
Many of the greatest footballers in St. Brigid’s’ history lined out last Sunday. None of them let down their side. Their third consecutive victory in the minor final maintains the conveyor belt of prodigies emerging from Kiltoom, while the eye-catching display of Mark Daly also augurs well for the future.
For now though, the Fahey Cup has returned to Johnstown. As was the case with Athleague’s victory in the hurling final, one suspects the latest triumph will rank among the most cherished in Clann na nGael’s fabled history.