“WHAT a way to win a game,” was how UCC coach Ger Cunningham described Chris O’Leary’s last-gasp winning penalty in this gruelling Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final.
It was certainly that. Without ever hitting their best form UCC survived a ferocious test as O’Leary converted in the 81st minute to shatter DCU’s challenge at rain-swept Waterford.
The College’s reward is an opportunity to capture their 39th third-level hurling crown and a first in six years when they face either Mary Immaculate College or NUI Galway.
“It’s incredible. I’m so delighted for the lads, they put such an effort in," said Cunningham. "DCU had a chance to go three ahead but we showed great courage. Shane Kingston won a great dirty ball (before the penalty).”
Kingston, along with Kerry native Shane Conway, led the line impressively for UCC throughout, pilfering 1-4 on minimal possession. The Douglas man, whose uncle Tom is the College manager nabbed 1-2 and was fouled for a converted free before half-time in normal time and that tally was decisive given how hard-earned every score was.
Yet when the game was slipping away from the favourites, the Cork senior was out in the trenches battling to the last.
UCC had their moments across the 80-plus minutes but, apart from a burst at the end of the first half and the 10 minutes before a Mark Bergin free to force extra time, were often second best. The swirling wind didn’t do them any favours and wasn’t ideal for their flair players like Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon.
Fitzgibbon was introduced in the first half for the injured Mark Kehoe just 48 hours after losing the All-Ireland intermediate club final in Croke Park with Charleville and worked tirelessly. Indeed he could have had a handful of points but his radar was slightly off.
DCU, last year’s runners-up, were driven on by Dublin’s Chris Crummey and Rian McBride, while Wexford’s Rory O’Connor, Paudie Foley and Damien Reck showed their inter-county experience, with Kilkenny’s Bergin proving a handful at times for Eddie Gunning and Niall O’Leary. Sub John Donnelly was always a threat too but there was never more than a goal between the teams.
Apart from Chris O’Leary’s penalty, which was a harsh call against the Dubliners under a dropping ball, the Valleys powerhouse made his presence felt when it mattered. He banged over two monster long-range points from play and Kingston’s goal came after a break from an O’Leary free from UCC’s 65. A match-winner in every sense.
Limerick’s Paddy O’Loughlin struck the world of ball as a sweeper, while in general, the College’s rearguard deserve credit for curbing DCU’s goal-threat despite their possession.
And yet it all came down to O’Leary’s penalty, which was almost saved.
“One-to-one last minute, we were praying Chris would convert it,” said Cunningham. “We only got one penalty all year and Mark Coleman took it and he was gone off. Chris takes them with his club and he was big enough to step up and take it.”
UCC’s last Fitzgibbon was captured in 2013, the third in a five-year period when the late Paul O’Connor was an influential figure in the backroom. Ger Cunningham and Dr Paddy Crowley were heavily involved then too.
Conor Lehane, Seamus Harnedy and William Egan were the College’s leading lights on the 2013 team, along with Tipp’s James Barry and Dan McCormack. Mary I were the opposition in that decider, with current manager Jamie Wall was wing-back and the likes of Midleton’s Luke O’Farrell, Declan Hannon, John Conlon, Conor Cooney and Colm Glavin on board too.