It might have been the Cat Laughs weekend in Kilkenny, but Evergreen A were the ones left smiling after they ended their season on a McCalmont Cup high.
The men from the Kells Road ended a six-year wait for the Cup (a veritable famine for the trophy-laden club) but got their hands on the spoils and city bragging rights by dethroning champions Freebooters A in Derdimus.
While Sunday’s final was missing a little of the spice so often seen when these two clash, much of that can be attributed to Evergreen’s game-plan. They never let Freebooters’ midfield catch fire, snuffing out the embers before they could spark up.
It helped, of course, that they had some experienced heads in their ranks, none more so than Brian Jordan.
A 18-year-old when named in the squad for Evergreen’s 1998 final appearance, the 2015 Man of the Match played a big part in helping his side fashion the lead - and hold on to it.
The game took on a green and white hue in the 26th minute, when Jordan used his experience to chase a looping ball into the Freebooters box. James Kelly tried to turn into enough space to make the clearance but, put under pressure, he lost possession to Jordan, who was then tripped up by the full-back. Penalty!
Sean Barcoe stepped up to take the spot kick. He may have been a doubt to make the final - injury forced him off in the semi-final - but his emphatically thumped finish high and to the left proved he was ready for action.
Given the chances they had created, the goal had been coming Evergreen’s way. They could, and should, have broken the deadlock as early as the seventh minute, when Darragh Walshe chested the ball on to Brian Jordan.
A clever diagonal ball split the ’Booters defence open, giving Tommy Earls time to dash in from the right and bear down on goal, but his shot lacked the power to beat Michael Lambert.
They had another chance to nick the lead just a few minutes later. This time Walshe was at the end of the move, reacting to a Dylan Whearty header that flashed across goal, but the ball just zipped beyond the striker’s reach.
Freebooters had been quiet in attack, but almost roared into action with 11 minutes on the clock. Paddy Cahill found room to chase Niall Andrews down and rob him of possession, but Packie Holden smothered the danger before Cahill could get his shot away.
That gave the Cup holders some encouragement. So too did their next best opportunity, when great teamwork saw Cian Loy, Cahill, Aaron Molloy and Ger Hayes combine to tee up Niall McEvoy, but he couldn’t provide a finish to match the build-up.
Going a goal down seemed to spark Freebooters into life but, for all their efforts, they couldn’t force their way back into the game. Their best chance to draw level came after the half hour, when Geoffrey Brennan’s diagonal ball was picked up on the left by Loy.
Using Niall Andrews as a shield to hide his intentions, Loy bent his low shot around the defender and towards the inside of the far post, but Holden got down smartly to make the save.
The goalkeepers were having a busy time of it, with Holden’s opposite number also forced into action late in the half. Michael Lambert had to look lively to keep out Walshe’s close range shot in the 36th minute. He did even better five minutes later, reaching up to finger-tip Chris Whearty’s dipping, swerving free-kick over the bar.
The second half started with Freebooters going on the offensive, but they couldn’t get the final touch that would yield an equaliser. James Kelly aimed an excellent ball that almost sent Geoffrey Brennan racing through, but Dylan Whearty nipped in to rob possession in the nick of time. Packie Holden also had to look smart, picking off a deep Aaron Molloy cross as ’Booters pressed for a way back into the game.
Their hopes of making a comeback were dealt a double blow inside seven second half minutes. The first came when the Blues failed to fully clear a long Tommy Earls’ throw-in that dropped into the danger zone on 55 minutes.
Freebooters managed to get the ball out of the box, but it only reached Jamie Owens. Working an angle on the left wing, he delivered a perfect cross. Dylan Whearty did the rest, stealing in between the central defenders to glance the ball home.
Freebooters’ hopes of getting back into the game became an uphill task when they were reduced to ten men after the hour mark, a second yellow card bringing an early end to Jack Poyntz’s afternoon.
Freebooters kept looking for a way back into the game but couldn’t break down Evergreen’s defence (their back three were solid throughout) while the five-man midfield really put the shackles on the creativity of Paddy Cahill and his colleagues.
The dismissal took the sting out of Freebooters - but not their fight. Ger Hayes gave his side heart when he fired home a fine 82nd minute strike, the winger drilling a half-volley inside Holden’s left post.
It was a great goal - but Evergreen weren’t about to let the title slip from their grasp at this late stage.
Evergreen A: Packie Holden; Oisin Corr, Niall Andrews, Dylan Whearty; Tommy Earls, Sean Barcoe, Jamie Owens (Jason Quan, 77 mins), Damien Kelly, Chris Whearty; Brian Jordan (Robbie Quan, 71 mins), Darragh Walshe.
Freebooters A: Michael Lambert; Jack Poyntz, Julian O’Keeffe, David Rice, James Kelly; Ger Hayes, Niall McEvoy, Geoffrey Brennan (Jason Hennessy, 60 mins), Aaron Molloy; Paddy Cahill, Cian Loy.
Referee: Packie Geoghegan. Linesmen: Lee Kill, Eoin Walsh. Fourth official: Jimmy Nolan.