There was ecstasy, disappointment and fury in almost equal measure when Fenians escaped to victory in this full on do-or-die affair.
Releagation finals in the senior hurling championship in Kilkenny are emotion charged affairs, and this sizzler in the sun at Palmerstown on Saturday was right up there with the best and most demanding of what has gone before.
In the end a rushed, under pressure shot from midfielder Kieran Grehan, from 40 metres on the right wing at the clubhouse end, earned Fenians (Johnstown) the golden point that snatched victory and secured their tenure in the top flight for another 12 months at least.
Graigue-Ballycallan, no less brave, no less committed than their conquerors, were sent spinning back into the intermediate grade by a score claimed with the clock heading towards the 63rd minute. The word sailed on the breeze along the sideline that three minutes of additional time would be played at the end of the norm. It was when this time was being seen out that Graigue lost their status.
After Grehan’s point there was barely time for the puck-out. Graigue were furious, and verbal assaults rained down on referee, Tommy Duggan. Club officials felt time should have been called before the decisive score was claimed. Fenians, while sympathetic towards their opponents plight, were utterly relieved.
Smiling Fenians manager, Eamon Sweeney summed up the mood: “I have never, ever experienced anything like that. That was pure passion, emotion and many other things. It was 100% effort from both sides. It could have gone either way. It looked like we were gone, but we got back.
“I have huge sympathy for Graigue. From the time Dicksboro beat us and we ended up in the relegation final the whole parish rolled in behind us. No matter what we wanted, we got it. We had close on 35 in the field every night for training.
“This was a victory for community effort. It wasn’t just a win for the team and club. It was a victory for the whole of Johnstown parish. Someone was praying for us, including myself. Staying senior is hugely important.”
Graigue-Ballycallan chairman, Pat Hayes, said it was “a rotten way” to lose a game of such importance.
“I never felt like this in my life,” he admitted. “I though the referee would blow up time when the scores were level. A lot of referees would have blown it up, but it is the ref’s decision.
“When we were two points up late in the game we missed a free and then Fenians came back and got a point. That was a crucial stage. We had our chances. We can’t complain really. We have to accept we are an intermeidte club now. We will have to take on that challenge. It is a big thing to go down.
“In 1997 we were in a relegation final. We won it and went on to win the county final the year after. Hopefully we will be able to lift the players and get back playing in the top flight.”
With about 12 minutes remaining, breeze backed Graigue might have been thinking that way after a pair of points from free taker, Niall Millea edged them 1-13 to 0-14 in front. The Fenians battled back for a pressure point from sub P.J. Delaney before the losers missed a handy enough effort from a placed ball.
Seven minutes from the end a push in the back on Conor Tobin ended with the ball being brought forward for dissent to a ‘can’t miss position’. Kevin Power posted the equaliser. Power then slapped down a cross from the left at the back post, but the ball went wide. The crowd swayed in wonder before Fenians won the lead through the same player.
Before Millea posted the equaliser 30 seconds into lost time, Graigue missed a chance, and they missed another one after it. On the play ran. Grehan’s late, late winner prompted a cheer that must have registered on the Richter Scale.
Fenians had many a hero, but none did better than J.J. Delaney, Kevin Power, Tom Bowe, John Henderson and Rory Phelan. Fearless performers they had in all sectors.
Mighty for the losers were Eddie Brennan, James Ryall, Gerard Teehan, Darragh Egan and Ciaran Hoyne.
The opening half play, although fiercely competitive, didn’t promise as much drama as unfolded. The breeze, which was worth a little carry to the ball, backed Fenians. They opened full of promise, and early points from Willie Brennan and Power (free) looked to have eased them into the mood.
However, Graigue goaled against the run of play in the sixth minute. A 65 won by Jason Dermody was aimed towards the target by Millea. As the full-back and full-forward battled for the arriving ball on the edge of the square, they appeared to impair the vision of goalie P.J. Ryan and the ball ended up in the net off his chest.
The Fenians, with Power shooting some great scores, recovered smartly. They back level by the 10th minute. The sides were together twice after that before Fenians battled their way into an interval lead of 0-12 to 1-5.
Graigue exploded into life after the turn. Wing back Ciaran Hoyne lashed over a wonderful equaliser in the 41st minute (0-13 to 1-10). Twice subsequently they were locked together. It was gripping, nail biting stuff before Grehan’s late decider.
Scorers: Fenians - Kevin Power (0-11, seven frees, two 65s’); Conor Tobin (0-2, frees); Willie Brennan, Cathal Ryan, John Broderick, P.J. Delaney, Kieran Grehan (0-1 each). Graigue-Ballycallan - Niall Millea (1-8, goal 65, 0-5 frees, 0-2 65s’); Eddie Brennan (0-2); Darragh Walton, John Purcell, Ciaran Hoyne, Vinny Teehan (0-1 each).
Fenians - P.J. Ryan (capt), Declan Garrett, John Henderson, Eoin Phelan, Rory Phelan, J.J. Delaney, Tom Bowe, Kieran Grehan, J.P. Grehan, John Broderick, Conor Tobin, Cathal Ryan, Kevin Power, Daragh Tobin, Willie Brennan. Subs - P.J. Delaney for D. Tobin; Danny Dermody for W. Brennan; D. Tobin for C. Ryan.
Graigue-Ballycallan - P.J. Trant, Bob Murphy, Gerard Teehan, Shane Murphy, Jimmy Murphy, James Ryall, Ciaran Hoyne, Eddie Brennan (capt), Darragh Egan, Thomas Ryan, Niall Millea, Dermot Ryall, Darragh Walton, Jason Dermody, John Purcell. Subs - John Cleere for J. Murphy (inj); Vinny Teehan for D. Ryall; Bill Ryan for J. Purcell.
Referee - Thomas Duggan (Mullinavat).