BATTLE OF AUGHRIM
AGB and Blessington must go again after penalty drama
BLESSINGTON 2-14 ABG 0-20
(4-4 after penalties)
AS dramatic cliffhanger epics go, Sunday’s Senior football championship semi-final between AGB and Blessington will go down as one of the most exciting battles ever to be played at the county grounds and should, weather permitting, see a bumper crowd flock to Aughrim this Saturday for the replay between these two pure footballing sides after normal time, extra time and penalties couldn’t separate them.
Was it the best championship match at Senior level this year? Quite possibly, certainly in terms of drama and tension without a shadow of a doubt. This game delivered in every sense of the word and while both sides will know they can improve and while both will set out to negate certain aspects of each other’s game plan, it’s safe to say that football supporters, and new Wicklow boss Davy Burke who was present on Sunday, will thoroughly enjoy getting another chance to see these two athletic outfits go to war again this weekend.
Evening was rapidly closing in when County Chairman Martin Fitzgerald took his long strides in from the sideline to where the 10 penalty-taking warriors were situated on the pitch and from where, after a brief discussion, referee Garreth Whelan sounded the three shrill blasts on his whistle to signal that the contest was over, that after all the highs and lows, all the cheering and groaning, after the black cards and red cards and penalties not given, all the fine scores and near misses, all the close calls and excellent passages of play, that we would have to come back again, and that the ignominy of having your season crushed by the scoring or missing of a penalty after such an epic encounter would not be a reality.
Was it the right call? Many have said that to go out in such a manner would have been an injustice, a crime against the GAA. Sadly, if nothing separates both teams on Saturday then that is how one side will be making their exit. There is no more room for maneuver in terms of fixtures. Saturday’s game must end.
There are also those who say that it would have been equally cruel had Chris O’Brien not bagged that late free to send the game to penalties. There does seem to be a strange desire to shield people from hurt and disappointment in recent years but, alas, that is the nature of sport. For every joyous celebration there is a silent pain. For every captain’s speech read aloud there is a crumpled sheet of paper long forgotten.
There was no pain to be had on Sunday in Aughrim after Martin Fitzgerald called a halt to proceedings after Curtis Geragthy had pulled his effort just beyond the upright of Mervyn Travers’ goal. Had he converted Blessington were through to face St Pat’s in the decider after Stephen Kitt’s save from Cormac Hyland’s penalty had given Mick Murray’s men the advantage.
As both teams trudged off the field, relieved no doubt that their championship dreams were still alive, the reflections began on the action that had just unfolded.
Blessington enjoyed a wonderful start, opening up a 1-2 lead to 0-0 as they trundled through the AGB defence like a juggernaut in the opening six minutes.
The individual battles were fascinating. Ciaran Hyland was back for his first game in four months and he went straight in at centre back. And what a game he had. He opened the scoring for Damien Redmond’s men, tearing up the field and drifting over a beautiful shot for a badly needed tonic for a team that looked slightly shellshocked.
Mick Murray started Paul and Mick McLoughlin instead of Wayne Callaghan and Jordan Nolan. Chris O’Brien was full-forward with Mick McLoughlin for company, Philip Healy was facing the wrath of Barry Murphy.
Darragh Fitzgerald was having a tough time with Blessington captain Eoin Keogh but a switch involving Jack Hamilton certainly lessened the impact that Keogh had brought to bear in the opening quarter.
It was Keogh who grabbed the first goal of the game, finishing a half-saved shot by Stephen Carroll to the back of Mervyn Travers’ net at the Rednagh Hill end. That major added to Anto McLoughlin’s opening point and Keogh’s own point to open up that 1-2 to 0-0 gap.
Back came AGB with that Hyland point. Curtis Geragthy struck back off the left under zero pressure but even from early on it was clear to see that Blessington were under pressure from their own kick outs and it was a weakness that would have be a major factor in this game.
Philip Healy enjoyed one of those special days of his when he strokes balls between the sticks at his leisure and he got the first of his eight-point tally after 12 to make it 1-3 to 0-2.
Stephen Kitts’ restarts did hit their target at times and when he found Jack Gilligan with one the ball was worked to Eoin Keogh who bombed over his second of the day.
AGB’s recovery in the second quarter was commendable. Having looked painfully vulnerable, they made some intelligent changes including switching Chris O’Brien with Stephen Hurley and by the half-time whistle they were level at 0-9 to 1-6 through points from Cormac O’Shea, Healy (three frees), Chris O’Brien (2), and Stephen Hurley.
Blessington were knocked back in that second quarter and could only register two more points, the first from Patrick O’Connor, the second from a free from Mikey O’Connor and they also lost Jordan Nolan to a black card 14 minutes after he was introduced for the injured Stephen Carroll.
Damien Redmond sent in Tiernan McBride for Philip Gleeson at the break and AGB started superbly with Philip Healy dropping over a free after 90 seconds to give AGB the lead for the first time in the game.
The next three AGB points would originate from Stephen Kitt’s kicking tee. The first had nothing to do with the Blessington number one. His restart found Paul McLoughlin, but Tom Maher intercepted a long ball to Mikey O’Connor and AGB swept up the field where Stephen Hurley fired over a magnificent score.
Tiernan McBride collected the next kick out and JP Hurley the third and Stephen Hurley and Philip Healy (free) both raised white flags to open up a 0-12 to 1-6 lead by the fourth minute of the second half with AGB also having a point ruled out after one umpire overruled another.
The excellent Karl Kirwan increased AGB’s advantage but substitute Adam Boland hit back after 12 as Mervyn Travers started to have some difficulties from the kick out with the pressure being exerted by the Blessington forwards.
Mick Murray’s men were back to within one at the end of the third quarter after points from Mikey O’Connor (free) and Anto McLoughlin.
Onwards we went. Philip Healy slotted over a free as AGB introduced Peter Hempenstall, Ciaran O’Shea and Cormac Hyland to the fray, while Jordan McGarr came in for Curtis Geraghty before a Mikey O’Connor free was answered magnificently by Stephen Hurley who was taking over from Philip Healy on the frees after the sharpshooter had made way for Cormac Hyland.
And then the drama went up several notches. First, AGB fullback James Tyrrell was sent off on a straight red by referee Garreth Whelan after the Kiltegan official was summoned in to talk to an umpire.
And then Jack Cotter charged through the heart of the AGB defence before being pulled down and Whelan, again after consulting his umpires, ruled that the foul had taken place outside the square and a free was awarded which Mikey O’Connor pointed to pull Blessington back to within a point with only moments remaining.
All the pressure was on AGB now. Mervyn Travers found Chris O’Brien with the restart, Blessington attack, a hand on the ball on the ground, free out. Chris O’Brien to take. No options. A delay. Whictle sounds, throw ball. Anto Mcloughlin wins possession and a fre3e. Mikey O’Connor. For the draw, to send the game to extra time. Over she goes!
AGB are now back to 15. Ciaran Hyland goes to full back on Patrick O’Connor. Cal Kelly is in at wing back, Tom Maher at centre back on Paul McLoughlin while Chris O’Brien and Andrew Maher are in the middle of the field.
Blessington take the lead through Mikey O’Connor who finds an inch on Karl Kirwan after 30 seconds.
Stephen Hurley replies with an absolutely ridiculous free off the outside of his right boot.
Blessington look to be on their way when Paul McLoughlin finishes a Mikey O’Connor ball across the square to the back of the net, 2-13 to 0-16.
And then another body blow for AGB. Ciaran O’Shea picks up a black card but appears to say something to Garreth Whelan and it’s suddenly a red, eight gone.
Can Damien Redmond’s men come back?
What’s clear is they need a left-footed freetaker shooting into the dressing room end. In comes Darragh Culleton and before he’s even stretched, he’s swinging over a bomb after a foul on Stephen Hurley.
Chris O’Brien fires over a free following a handling error from the truly impressive Barry Murphybut Jordan McGarr puts that bit of daylight between the sides with a fine point to make it 2-14 to 0-18 with only minutes left.
Darragh Culleton wins a free. Chris O’Brien stands up and is counted. Mick Murray realises that the momentum is with the Arklow men and he sends Curtis Geraghty back in and Barry Finan.
AGB attack. High ball, JP Hurley climbs like a beast and gathers the ball and wins a free. Time is almost up. Chris O’Brien, nerves of steel, the run up, the strike, and over she goes. We’re going to penalties.
There’s a massive debate on the field between officials and team managements but eventually the 10 kickers assume their positions and both goalkeepers head for the goals at the village end.
Darragh Culleton delivers big time with the first kick, giving Stephen Kitt no chance. Patrick O’Connor finishes to the oppositie side with his.
Cormac Hyland makes the long walk. The ground underfoot is in bad condition and he has difficulty placing the ball. It’s obvious that he’s just not comfortable with this and his effort is saved by Kitt.
Anto McLoughlin gives Blessington a massive advantage when he finishes down the middle past Travers.
Cal Kelly hammers home, Adam Boland finishes superbly, Karl Kirwan looks to be in a mad hurry, and he wallops to the back of the net. Paul McLoughlin drives it up the middle and Andrew Maher goes low and hard.
Curtis Geraghty is next. Travers offers him the left of the goal as Geragthy looks at it and the full-forward sends it low to that corner, but he’s pulled it ever so slightly and she drifts wide of the post. Dear Lord in heaven!
Darragh Culleton looks set to be the first for the sudden death penalty takers but here comes Martin Fitzgerald and Garreth Whelan sounds the final whistle.
They’ll go again. And nobody will complain because that was pure class.
Scorers – AGB: Philip Healy 0-8 (8f), Chris O’Brien 0-5 (3f), Stephen Hurley 0-3 (1f), Ciarán Hyland 0-1, Cormac O’Shea 0-1, Karl Kirwan 0-1, Darragh Culleton 0-1.
Blessington: Mickey O’Connor 0-6 (5f), Eoin Keogh 1-2, Paul McLoughlin 1-0, Anto McLoughlin 0-2 (1f), Curtis Geraghty 0-1, Patrick O’Connor 0-1, Adam Boland 0-1, Jordan McGarr 0-1.
AGB: Mervyn Travers; Tom Maher, James Tyrrell, Jack Hamilton; Karl Kirwan, Ciaran Hyland, Darragh Fitzgerald; JP Hurley, Stephen Hurley; Andrew Maher, Philip Gleeson, Cormac O’Shea; Cathal Kelleher, Philip Healy, Chris O’Brien. Subs: Tiernan McBride for P Gleeson (H/T), Peter Hempenstall for JP Hurley (46), Ciaran O’Shea for C O’Shea (49), Cormac Hyland for P Healy (55), Cal Kelly for ???? , Daire McBride for C Kelleher (70), Darragh Culleton for P Hempenstall (76).
BLESSINGTON: Stephen Kitt; Barry Murphy, Mick McLoughlin, Steven Bohan; Jack Cotter, Jack Gilligan, Kevin Hanlon; David Boothman, Patrick O’Connor; Eoin Keogh, Anthony McLoughlin, Stephen Carroll; Paul McLoughlin, Curtis Geraghty, Mikey O’Connor. Subs: Jordan Nolan for S Carroll (16), Adam Boland for J Nolan (30, BC), Jordan McGarr for C Geraghty (51), Curtis Geraghty for M O’Connor (77), Barry Finan for K Hanlon (77).
REFEREE: Garreth Whelan (Kiltegan)
Blessington’s Jack Gilligan puts pressure on AGB’s Andy Maher during the SFC semi-final in Aughrim.
Blessington’s David Boothman prepares to field this ball.
AGB’s Tom Maher races down the field with Jack Cotter in hot pursuit.
Blessington’s Kevin Hanlon tries to keep up with AGB’s Cormac O’Shea during the thrilling Senior football championship semi-final.
Paul McLoughlin and Chris O’Brien contest in the air.