UNFORTUNATELY for St Finbarr’s, a memorable year came to an end on Sunday with a one-point defeat to Ballyea in Sunday’s AIB Munster Club SHC semi-final.
The Barrs were level with the Clare champions five times in the second half of the clash at Cusack Park in Ennis and the game was in the balance until the very end, when Ben Cunningham’s 65 drifted narrowly wide of the posts.
Given that the Togher side, competing in the provincial hurling championship for the first time since 1993, played more than three-quarters of the game with 14 players, the manner in which they refused to wilt was heartening for manager Ger Cunningham.
“That sums it up, really,” he said.
“When you lose a match, it is obviously very disappointing. We came up to Ennis to get to the Munster club final, that was our aim. We wanted to build on what we have done all through the year.
“But, in the circumstances of the way the game went, to play with 14 men for 50 minutes, the lads showed massive character and massive pride for 50 minutes. I am so proud of them in the performance they gave.”
Conor Cahalane’s early red card for an incident with Jack Browne could have been a debilitating impediment for the Barrs, but instead it was a rallying call.
“I thought the sending-off was harsh,” Cunningham said.
“He meant to throw the hurley away, it wasn’t intentional in any shape or form that he was going to throw it at the player’s throat. It looked dangerous, but it wasn’t. It was a yellow card.
“The lads galvanised. Conor has been massive for us all year. He is our vice-captain and one of our most influential players. There is not a dirty stroke in Conor.
He plays it hard, he plays it tough. He has been magnificent all year. Losing him was a blow.
"In fairness to the lads, they responded for him as well as everything else.
“We dug in there and we took the game to them. Nearly got there. We had opportunities. We got some great scores. We took the game to them. We pushed on, we had some great opportunities. We missed a couple, as well.
“There was some heroic defending. Look at the performance of Jamie Burns on Tony Kelly, which was unbelievable for the performance that he gave. I am just so proud of every single one of them, today and all year.
“They have given magnificent commitment to the Barrs. You could see there the ovation the supporters gave them afterwards. What they have done for the Barrs this year has been fantastic.”
Burns’ marking job limited Kelly’s impact, while the midfield pairing of Ethan Twomey and Ben O’Connor was outstanding, as the pair have been all year.
“They are exceptional players,” Cunningham said.
They have grown up with success underage with the Barrs. This is where they belong and where they feel they can play.
"Not to just pick them out, the effort all round was fantastic.”
Unfortunately for the Barrs, goal chances were at a premium — a follow-on from the numerical disparity, Cunningham felt.
“It was always going to be difficult [being a man down],” he said.
“We didn’t really create that many goal chances at all because of the situation and them having a deep-lying centre-back. Them having that extra man meant it was going to be very difficult to work it in there. We got goals all year. We didn’t threaten too many today. That was down to the circumstances of the way the game played out.”
And, while Cunningham’s son Ben — who scored nine points in a fine performance — was off-target with the late levelling opportunity, the reaction from colleagues and supporters spoke to a unity among the Barrs faithful.
“That’s the joys of being a free-taker,” he said, “you’ve got to take the responsibility that goes with it.
“Unfortunately, the last one wasn’t to be. Hopefully he’ll learn from it. His performance and everyone else’s, we as the Barrs management are so proud of them.
“They came up here to do themselves, the club, Togher parish and Cork proud, and I think they died on their feet and fair play to them.”