By Mark Jones
Birr (Offaly) 2-10
Clarinbridge (Galway) 1-5
Clarinbridge coach John McIntyre got it right when he talked of his side being given a “hurling lesson” after last Sunday’s All-Ireland club hurling championship final at Thurles. Birr came, saw and conquered with the swagger of true champions.
The Offaly’s club’s third title now puts them equal in the roll of honor with Athenry, Ballyhale Shamrocks and Blackrock, and if many observers reckoned that the newcomers from Clarinbridge would upset the odds, they were proved to be seriously wide of the mark. The Galwaymen could manage only two scores from play over the hour, and just one during the entire second half.
It was a combination of stage fright and inexperience as the losers’ key players, the Kerins brothers, Alan and Mark, and Darragh Coen struggled to get into the game.
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“It’s gone, it’s past history and life moves on,” philosophised McIntyre. “Ultimately, Clarinbridge’s fortunes over the next couple of seasons will be defined by their reaction to this defeat.”
In the end, it turned out to be the sort of family affair that nourishes the club game. Birr’s long-serving manager, Pad Joe Whelahan, watched his sons Brian, Simon and Barry deliver the goods, while the Pilkington brothers, Declan and Johnny, each scored a goal.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Brian Whelahan produced his obligatory man of the match performance with some sublime hurling from center-back. He tackled, he linked, he cajoled, he inspired — and he proved that class in enduring.
Clarinbridge must have sensed it wasn’t going to be their day when Declan Pilkington popped up after just 27 seconds to plunder his side’s first goal. There was a determined reply from David Donoghue, who drove the ball high to the net following David Forde’s astute assist, but with Mark Kerins completely stifled by Brian Whelahan and with Alan Kerins finding no way past Niall Claffey, the signs were ominous of the Galway team in their first final.
Backed by a strong breeze, Clarinbridge were only 1-4 to 1-2 ahead at the interval, and it wasn’t long before Birr imposed their collective will on the proceedings. Gary Hanniffy fired over some superb points, Stephen Brown gave further indications of his potential, and when Johnny Pilkington scored a decisive goal after being moved to full-forward, the result was a foregone conclusion.
“We were always going to win,” said a beaming Pad Joe Whelahan. “Once we held them in the first half, I knew we were going to win.”
The Birr legend lives on.
Birr: B. Mullins; G. Cahill, J. Errity, J.P. O’Meara; N. Claffey, Brian Whelahan (0-1), D. Franks; R. Hanniffy (0-1), Barry Whelahan ; J. Pilkington (1-0), G. Hanniffy (0-2), L. Power; D. Pilkington (1-0), S. Whelahan (0-4), S. Brown (0-2). Sub: P. Molloy for Power, 52 mins.
Clarinbridge: L. Donoghue; M. Spelman, A. Quinn, G. Spelman; J. Cannon, M. Donoghue, L. Madden; D. Coen (0-4), B. Carr; P. Coen, M. Kerins, A. Kerins; C. Coen, D. Forde, D. Donoghue (1-1).
Referee: G. Harrington (Cork).
Ballinderry (Derry) 2-10
Nemo Rangers (Cork) 0-9
If the hurling decider went with form and tradition, the All-Ireland club football final threw up a surprise as the rural parish of Ballinderry deservedly deprived Nemo Rangers of a record seventh title.
The Cork club had come into the game at Thurles with history, as well as Colin Corkery, Joe Kavanagh and Steven O’Brien, on their side, but just like last season, they watched disconsolately as their opponents walked away with the Andy Merrigan Cup.
If it was a bitter pill to swallow, Nemo only have themselves to blame for a second successive final defeat after proving their durability by making the long, hard journey once again. They never clicked and never played to their potential.
By contrast, Ballinderry were more consistent and more opportunistic at vital stages of the contest.
“Without doubt our greatest day,” said an ecstatic manager, Brian McIver. “These players will be absolute legends in their area around the shore of Lough Neagh. We knew we were playing the best club side in Ireland, so for us to come to heartland of the GAA in Thurles and do this is unbelievable.”
The game turned on decisive period during the second half when Nemo were on a roll after scoring four answered points despite playing into a stiff breeze. Those scores by Corkery, Gary Murphy, J.P. O’Neill and Stephen Callanan had cut the deficit to one, and it seemed if the Cork club would now go on and make up for the disappointment of last season when they lost in the decider to Charlestown of Mayo.
They had a great chance to draw level, but Derek Kavanagh put his shot wide — and then disaster. Murphy appeared to have control of the ball about 25 meters from his own goal, but he somehow lost possession and Adrian McGuckin broke clear, drew goalkeeper Don Heaphy, delivered a pass to Gerard Cassidy who had the simple task of shooting into an empty goal.
It was no more than Ballinderry deserved. The impressive Cassidy finished with 1-4, and there were excellent performances from Jarlath Bell, Paul Wilson and Ronan McGuckin. The Derry side celebrated a wonderful victory — Nemo could hardly bare to watch.
Ballinderry: M. Conlan; K. McGuckin, N. McCusker, J. Bell; P. Wilson, R. McGuckin, D. Crozier; S. Donnelly, E. Muldoon (0-1); B. McCusker (0-1), C. Gilligan (0-1), D. Conway (0-2); D. Bateson (1-1), A. McGuckin, G. Cassidy (1-4). Sub: M. Murray for B. McCusker, 54 mins.
Nemo Rangers: D. Heaphy; L. Kavanagh, Sean O’Brien, N. Geary; G. Murphy (0-1), Steven O’Brien, M. Cronin; K. Cahill, D. Kavanagh (0-1); D. Mehigan, J.P. O’Neill (0-1), M. McCarthy; J. Kavanagh (0-1), C. Corkery (0-4), A. Cronin. Subs: S. Callanan (0-1) for Mehigan, 45 mins.; L. O’Sullivan for O’Neill, 53 mins.