By Denis J. Croke
PICTURE it – almost 62 minutes on the clock and, leading by two points, Portlaoise look on their way to making it ten-in-a-row. Stradbally win possession deep in their own half, work the ball up field through the hands of Colm Begley, Liam Knowles, Stephen Lawlor and Damien Murphy.
Murphy finds Gary Comerford out on the left, he cuts inside and looks set to have a shot, but spots Jody Dillon inside him. The full forward, takes the pass, has one look up before unleashing an unstoppable shot across Graham Brody and into the far top corner.
There is time for the kick out, but just about and as Eddie Kinsella’s whistle echoes across O’Moore Park the stand erupts as Stradbally supporters race onto the pitch to celebrate a memorable performance.
As the Stradbally players and supporters rejoice, the Portlaoise players sink to their knees, the ten-in-a-row dream shattered. They had come so close to claiming victory but in the end will look back and realise that they could so easily have been crowned champions yet again.
Going into the final quarter they held a one point lead. But when they had the opportunity to put the result beyond doubt their shooting let them down. Three efforts were dropped short into Derek Beale’s welcoming arms and they also shot three bad wides.
A super point by wing back Brian Mulligan looked like it might just be enough, but they hadn’t banked on Dillon’s wonder goal.
Both sides looked nervous early on, hitting a few wides before Gary Comerford landed the games first point from a fourth minute free, after Greg Ramsbottom had been fouled.
Stradbally were playing with the aid of the strong wind but it was Portlaoise who were to strike next. From 40 metres, Craig Rogers delivered a teasing pass into the Stradbally goalmouth where Brian McCormack rose highest to deflect the ball to the net for the game’s first goal in the eighth minute. The Portlaoise talisman took a heavy knock but after treatment was able to continue.
Unfortunately for Bruno, he soon had to leave the pitch and was removed to hospital. His absence was a huge blow to Portlaoise who missed him badly as the game progressed.
Late call up, John Donoghue landed a great point for Stradbally, but this was cancelled out by a Paul Cahillane free. But by the 18th minute the sides were level as Dillon and Comerford (free) split the posts.
Cahillane restored Portlaoise’s lead with an exquisite point with his right foot, only for Comerford to draw the sides level again. And when the same player stroked over a beauty from out on the right in the 29th minute Stradbally were back in front.
A minute later it was stalemate once again after Gareth Dillon’s quickly taken free to the outstanding Brian Mulligan saw the ball worked David Seale and the corner back was denied a goal as Beale deflected the shot over the bar.
Stradbally were laying the better football at this stage and were to land the next three points. Donoghue split the posts from 40 metres, followed by Padraig Fitzpatrick and an excellent point from Colm Begley.
Cahillane’s late point ensured Portlaoise were just two behind at the break, 0-9 to 1-4, but with the wind in their backs for the second half.
As has been the case so often in the past, Portlaoise played their best football in the second half. They attacked at pace, played the ball around and looked to have Stradbally in all sorts of problems.
Within five minutes of the restart the sides were level once again thanks to points from Cahillane (free) and Brian Smyth. Good work by Brian Glynn resulted in Cahillane edging Portlaoise ahead in the 39th minute while Gareth Dillon strike made it a two point game.
It would take 12 minutes of the new half for Stradbally to record their first score of the half, but it was worth waiting for. The ball was working into Comerford in the big square and as Brody came out to smother the shot, Comerford calmly stroked the ball under the advancing keeper, and suddenly Stradbally were back in front.
Adrian Kelly levelled a minute later while Roger’s free in the 45th minutes gave Portlaoise the slenderest of leads entering the final quarter.
At this stage Stradbally’s football had become very scrappy with passes going astray, players being too easily dispossessed, and all to often being beaten to the ball. But they still managed to keep in touch as Comerford converted another free to bring the sides together for the last time in this game.
Portlaoise should really have been three or four points to the good by now but wides from Cahillane, Rogers and Glynn would cost them in the end. But still they came forward and one patient build up was rewarded with a Stuart Nerney point to give them the lead in the 56th minute.
With the clock ticking down Mulligan landed a superb point putting two between them and what looked like the victory securing point as two minutes of injury time was announced.
But Portlaoise, and indeed the huge crowd in O’Moore Park, had not banked on Stradbally’s resolve and Dillon’s wonder strike. Portlaoise’s dream was shattered while Stradbally’s dream hab been realised, they were county champions for the first time since 2005 when Colm Kelly’s late point had also shattered Portlaoise’s dream.
STRADBALLY: Derek Beale; Colin Beale, Liam Knowles, Jamie Kavanagh; Cormac Delaney, Eoin Buggie, John Donoghue (0-2); Darren Maher, Colm Begley (0-1); Damien Murphy, Gary Comerford (1-5, 0-2f), Conor Delaney; Greg Ramsbottom, Jody Dillon (1-1), Padraig Fitzpatrick (0-1).
Subs: Stephen Lawlor for Cormac Delaney (27m), Tom Shiel for Fitzpatrick (35m), Darragh McEvoy for Conor Delaney (48m), Cormac Delaney for Shiel (59m), Colm Kelly for Ramsbottom (60m)
PORTLAOISE: Graham Brody; Chris Finn, Cahir Healy, David Seale (0-1); Brian Mulligan (0-1), Kieran Lillis, Gareth Dillon (0-1); Brian McCormack (1-0), Stuart Nerney (0-1); Conor Dunphy, Brian Smyth (0-1), Brian Glynn; Paul Cahillane (0-5, 0-2f), Conor Boyle, Craig Rogers (0-1f).
Subs: Adrian Kelly (0-1) for McCormack (25m, inj), Ciaran McEvoy for Dunphy (51m), Ricky Maher for Kelly (55m),
Referee: Eddie Kinsella (Courtwood)