Seldom have I been witness to such a collective sigh of absolute relief than in Thomastown on Saturday evening when O’Loughlin Gaels - holding on to the slimmest lead imaginable - heard the final whistle sound, bringing a hugely competitive and enthralling All County junior hurling final to conclusion.
From start to finish this game bubbled with action. The more experienced O’Loughlin’s lads showed the value of their senior experience of the recent past in spades as they decimated the men from the South with some brilliant passages of possession and well-orchestrated directional hurling.
From the gun, the half-back line of Andy Kearns, Rick Leydon and Paddy Deegan was impenetrable. Time and again they gobbled up any available ball, turning potential Graignamanagh attacks into roadblocks. To supplement the telling efforts of the half-backs O’Loughlin’s had a brilliant play-maker at midfield in Brian Dowling, whose long-range striking was immaculate.
O’Loughlin’s tore holes in the Graignamanagh defence in the first 11 minutes, when first Alan Geoghegan skinned all round him to slam home a great solo goal after five minutes. Barely 60 seconds later, centre-forward Paddy Cantwell ripped another hole in the Graig defence again to give Ronan Dowling no hope from five yards out.
It was all about O’Loughlin Gaels!
It is quite conceivable that the game would have been stopped on the grounds of the excessive admin of punishment but for the heroics of Dowling between the Graig posts. He was in exceptional form, and could probably have stopped hayseed in a wind tunnel if called upon.
Dowling made a string of unbelievable saves after Cantwell’s goal. But again, he could do nothing about the O’Loughlin third goal which was drilled past his ear in the 15th minute by lively corner-forward Michael Henebry.
In all of this action Graignamanagh were confined to playing the victim role. They made wholesale switches, but very few worked. Their management team needed to get them to half-time with a limited damage spec. They got a few points from Lee Kinsella, James Meaney, Adam Kennedy and Brendan Foley, but at half-time the scoreboard read O’Loughlin Gaels 3-4, Graignamanagh 0-5.
Graignamanagh had played with the use of the breeze in that first half. Brandon Hill looked a big edifice now!
But what a transformation was about to materialise as the teams lined up for a second half that, on the evidence of the first, was perceived as purely an academic exercise.
If the first half was all about O’Loughlin Gaels, the second was certainly all about the effort of the Graig lads and how they could have, might have, and nearly did, win the competition.
Graig hunted every available opportunity, hammered every available ball back towards the O’Loughlin’s defence and battled with tremendous gusto for supremacy, a supremacy that narrowly evaded their herculean effort.
With a realignment of their forces Graignamanagh swarmed forward, causing hassle for the O’Loughlin defenders, who were now being pushed onto their back foot.
Eddie Walsh was a revelation, while Lee Kinsella was not too far adrift of him in determination and success ratio. Adam Kennedy adopted the roving role demanded by manager Frank Minogue with great success, while the half-back line of James Cahill, James Doyle in particular, and James Meaney stood with a great presence.
Slowly but most positively, Graignamanagh hauled in the city lads. Unanswered points from Kinsella (2), Eddie Walsh and Cathal Dunne had the differential down to four points (3-4 to 0-9) by the 39th minute. At 45 minutes, the gap had been pared down to a couple.
The Graig men were at war. They came out of their defence like men possessed. At the 49th minute mark, a single point divided the sides, and as the excitement clawed its way into the high clouds, Eddie Walsh put the sides toe to toe with a tremendous equaliser.
The final 10 minutes were red raw, with the Graig lads warping in their effort to wrestle the initiative away from the Hebron Road outfit.
But it was not to be. Two very smart points by Alan Geoghegan - who else? - in the 55th and 57th minutes afforded his side some much appreciated breathing space. Graig had a few chances but taking the wrong options was their devil. They got one by Eddie Walsh, but the equaliser never arrived - it could have on three occasions, but didn’t.
It was a great hour’s of entertainment, but one would have to say that the vastly more experienced and probably more streetwise O’Loughlin’s carried the day.
It was a grand hour of hurling entertainment, with a high octane level of excitement - not good for cardiac patients!
O’Loughlin Gaels - Sammy Johnston, Alan O’Brien, Brian Murphy, Steven Tyrrell, Andy Kearns, Rick Leydon, Paddy Deegan, Brian Dowling (0-3), Martin Gibbons, Alan Geoghegan (1-2, 0-1 free), Paddy Cantwell (1-0), Robbie Buckley, Michael Henebry (1-1), John Doyle (0-1), Danny Lenehan. Subs: Gary Bryan, Fergal Brennan, Seamie Cummins, Cian Loy.
Graignamanagh - Ronan Dowling, Sean Dowling, Len Blanchfield, Paul Hamilton, James Doyle, James Cahill, Bernard Hennessy, Eddie Dowling, James Meaney (0-2), Seamus Kavanagh (0-1), Brendan Foley (0-1), Eddie Walsh (0-3), Jim O’Donnell, Lee Kinsella (0-6, 0-5 frees), Cathal Dunne (0-1). Subs: Adam Kennedy (0-1), Sean O’Brien.
Referee - Ray Byrne (Glenmore).