A GOOD game that whizzed along at a merry pace exploded into life during the closing five minutes or so when both sides got into a winning position, but in the end a diplomatic draw in this city derby was probably the fairest result which left the pair with a lot to play for still when the senior hurling league action resumes in mid-July.
Heading into the closing seven minutes at Nowlan Park on Saturday back-to-back points from Matthew Ruth and the irrepressible Eoin Larkin, scorer of 12 points, edged James Stephens 0-17 to 1-12 in front and looked to have inflicted serious damage on O’Loughlin’s after they had just battled back to gain parity.
The hurling up to that had been good, the excitement level decent. Things were to be raised a decibel or two, however, as both blasted towards a gripping, excitement filled finish.
In the 57th minute the battling St John’s Park crew turned the match on its head when their main score getter, Mark Bergin worked space to get in a fierce drive from 25-metres at the ’Stephens goal at the country end. Goalie Derrick Brennan brought off a tremendous block.
The ball rebounded off the goalie’s stick and fell kindly for sub, David Burke on the edge of the square. The ash cut through the air and made perfect contact. The ball zips through a crowded area and made the net shiver.
O’Loughlin’s were back in front, 2-12 to 0-17.
’Stephens had come too far to let things slip now. They pounded away. With 59.37 showing on the clock, David Walton was dragged and pulled in midfield. Free! Eoin Larkin, the ‘Steady Eddie’ on frees, popped it over. Level!
Game over? Not by a long shot. A game that for long spells was dominated by free takers Larkin and Bergin, had two more intriguing turns to make.
First, in the 60th minute (plus 59 seconds) James Stephens captain Donnacha Cody took full advantage of a free brought forward by the referee to The Village 50-metre line by drilling it the huge distance over the bar. Advantage ’Stephens!
On the action flowed. With 62.09 showing on the clock, Mark Bergin was tumbled about 40 metres right in front of goal. It was a sure thing for O’Loughlin’s top score. He delivered the equaliser.
“O’Loughlin’s and ourselves always produce close and entertaining affairs,” suggested James Stephens selector, Adrian Finan afterwards. “This was no different. A point each was about fair. We knew there would be nothing in it.
“When you are a point up late in the game you would like to hold on to it, but we were a point behind a little earlier and we would have taken a draw at that stage. A defeat would have finished the league for us.
“There is still a lot to play for. We are not going too badly. The players have worked hard. The last month was hard, with three games coming close together. By the time things resume hopefully we will have a deeper panel.
“The main thing from our point of view is that after three games we are still in with a chance in the league. That is what we wanted.”
The action was fast, lively and laced with skilful touches – there was some really clever use of the hand-pass by both sides when players were caught in possession – from the off. During the opening 20 minutes or so there was nothing between the teams as 10 points were shared equally.
Two lovely points from Brian Dowling, one from 45-metres or so on either wing, and another from Matthew Ruth in the 7th minute decorated the play. O’Loughlin’s had a goal disallowed for a square ball in the 17th minute, but things were even enough besides.
The biggest divide was opened by ’Stephens between the 23rd and 27th minutes when Larkin (2) and David Walton contributed scores to take them 0-8 to 0-5 clear.
The lead was reduced to two (0-9 to 0-7) by the break after the championship kings had made pretty good use of possession, chalking up a mere three wides against their opponents six.
The next quarter turned into a shooting match between the two free takers. Passing the 38 minute mark, for example, 22 points were showing on the scoreboard (12 to 10). Thirteen came by way of frees.
The next score was an O’Loughlin’s goal, created by a beautifully weighted hand-pass by Bergin, and finished with aplomb from a bad angle on the left inside the ‘14’ by Martin Comerford.
O’Loughlin’s lead was short lived after Niall Tyrrell was gifted possession and a chance from in front of goal by a hasty clearance from an under pressure defender (1-10 to 0-13).
Five minutes on the teams were still together, 0-15 to 1-12. The roaming, trouble shooting Larkin was becoming a massive presence, looking the one most likely to win the game.
After O’Loughlin’s missed a decent enough chance to go in front, the aforementioned mentioned points from Ruth and Larkin (0-17 to 1-12) were claimed. The fuse was lit. The game was about to shooting into orbit.
For me, this was the best game in the league to date in terms of competitiveness, skill and sheer excitement.
Eoin Larkin was wonderful, nothing less. Colleagues Jackie Tyrrell, Matthew Ruth, Donnacha Cody, Ray Coady, John Comerford and David Walton made huge contributions too.
O’Loughlin’s had heroes who were not out-classed, including Mark Bergin, Brian Hogan, who appear to injury himself in the warm up before the match, Mark Kelly, Brian Dowling, Niall Bergin, Alan O’Brien, Martin Comerford and Alan Geoghegan.
James Stephens - Derrick Brennan, Niall McQuillan, Jackie Tyrrell, John Comerford, Paddy Butler, Donnacha Cody (capt), Ray Coady, Niall Tyrrell, David McCormack, Richie Hayes, Matthew Ruth, David Walton, Tomas O’Dowd, Eoin Larkin, Anthony Lawlor.
O’Loughlin-Gaels - Stephen Murphy, Alan O’Brien, Andy Kearns, Eddie Kearns, Eoghan Grant, Brian Hogan, Niall Bergin, Alan Geoghegan, Mark Bergin, Brian Dowling, Mark Kelly, Conor Bergin, Jack Nolan, Martin Comerford, Davy Broderick. Subs - Brian Murphy for Grant; Paddy Butler for D. Broderick; David Burke for J. Nolan.
Referee - Dominic Connolly (Mooncoin).