THERE was drama aplenty in Bord na Móna O’Connor Park Tullamore on Saturday afternoon where guts and determination were key for gritty 13-man Fr O’Neill’s who secured their place in the All-Ireland intermediate club hurling championship final in Croke Park on Saturday week.
They were put to the pin of their collar having to play most of the second half without joint captain Mark O’Keeffe and Billy Dunne. To say they were up against it would be somewhat of an understatement, forced to dig deep, very deep. The margin was reduced to two points in the second of the eight additional minutes announced but they recorded an inspirational triumph over adversity.
The sendings off early in the second half were the big talking points as their large band of supporters mixed with the players on the field soon after the final whistle.
There were three red cards brandished by Dublin referee Chris Mooney as Fr O’Neill’s ended with 13 players and Tooreen 14 in what must be said was a sporting game.
There is no doubt Fr O’Neill’s already have their work cut out facing a fancied Tullaroan selection from Kilkenny in the decider.
That they will need all hands-on-deck for the final goes without saying. Management do have the option to appeal the decisions and look certain to do so. The outcome would also have a big bearing on their substitution list which has contributed so much all season.
To date, Fr O’Neill’s have displayed unrelenting spirit, but it was never more evident (and needed) than in this battle. A huge occasion, the stepping-stone to the biggest stage of all.
Both teams went into this game after a well-earned Christmas break. Fr O’Neill’s were up and running after a mere 19 seconds when Paudie McMahon pointed. They built up an early head of steam to go 0-10 to 0-5 up at the break. However, their accuracy was not as good as usual Fortunately for them, Tooreen had similar problems.
It was interesting to hear manager Paul Hunt say afterwards that their wide count was the difference.
“We are very disappointed. We knew we had a huge opportunity today, albeit up against a great Cork side. We felt if we played, we would ask the questions. Unfortunately in the first half we had a lot of possession but didn’t make enough use of it. The wrong shot selection and some bad wides. Our backs were holding out really well but up the other side we just weren’t getting enough scores.”
In that opening 30 minutes, the two teams found flags hard to come by. It was always felt Tooreen would put it up to Fr O’Neill’s but the Cork contingent travelled in plenty confidence that they would do the business against the Connacht men.
The cross wind appeared tricky, maybe it was a factor in the wayward shooting. It didn’t affect Declan Dalton’s free taking which was immaculate and for one of his three points from play in the first half he showed remarkable skill to scoop the sliotar up off the ground with his foot.
It was far from a one-man show up front though, Dunne, Eoin Conway, McMahon and O’Keeffe helping the Munster titleholders get to grips with the occasion. The backs, led by Mike Millerick and joint-captain Dan Harrington, were doing their job. They didn’t allow their opponents any scores from play. It was ten points to five and all five Tooreen points were from placed balls.
Dalton continued to run the show after the resumption. And there was a point from Kevin O’Sullivan. The Imokilly team remained in a double score lead, 0-12 to 0-6.
That is when calamity struck.
On the far side of the pitch, and six minutes after restarting, O’Keeffe got his marching orders. Five minutes later, Dunne saw red in front of goal.
Major turning points. Fr O’Neill’s reduced to 13 players. Tooreen pushed two men forward in an attempt to take the game to them. Fr O’Neill’s were stretched. Dave Colbert and Bryan Sweeney started to empty their bench. A bench that has served them so well in this championship.
This day was no different. First in was Liam O’Driscoll, followed by Cillian Broderick. Within minutes of their arrival, O’Driscoll won a free that Dalton steered over, and Broderick nabbed a point.
Ten minutes from time and Fr O’Neill’s were hanging in there. Tooreen’s Sean Regan found the net but the referee called back play to give a free out. A huge sigh of relief. However, it wasn’t long before they did get a goal from Kenny Feeney – the number 14 was sent off two minutes from time.
Dalton angled over his 10th point in stoppage and O’Driscoll fired the final score.
“The four lads that came in all did very well. Very happy with them and that is the way it has been all year.
“We will prepare now for an All Ireland final and we will be ready for an All Ireland final,” said Colbert.
This is an opportunity to add to their All Ireland junior success of 2006.