Ballyholland 2-8 v 0-15 Shamrocks
Senior Football: ACFLII Promotion Play-Off
31st October 2004 at 1.00pm - Warrenpoint
Published by Anthony McNamee on 31st October 2004.
A bittersweet day of losing to rivals but winning a title
In the end it was all a little strange.
A terrific fightback against a strong Shamrocks team fell just short, as once again the Newry side clung to their long-running hoodoo over Ballyholland.
Yet in losing by a solitary point, Ballyholland had pipped the Shamrocks to the Division II title, by merit of having a superior scoring difference.
Despite having just secured what was probably the most important trophy that their club has ever won, there was next to no celebration when the cup was presented to captain Colman Smith.
Make no mistake, defeat to the Shamrocks hurt that badly.
A few hours later, when memories of the game had began to fade, the achievements of the three weeks just past got the recognition and celebrations they deserved.
But it is a measure of how much this group of players wanted to win this final game that those celebrations were often paused for the briefest of times, to ponder that great, insurmountable “if only”.
In fairness, the Shamrocks would have been kicking themselves for a year (in Division II nonetheless) if they hadn’t mounted a brave riposte to the problems posed to them by the Harps during an amazing blitz in the third quarter of the game.
The first twenty minutes of this game saw the Shamrocks provide a breathtaking display of football. Courageous in defence, dominant in midfield and frightening in attack, only a combination of errant shooting in front of goal together with frantic Ballyholland defending stopped them putting the game beyond doubt before the interval.
During this opening salvo, Ballyholland were simply in disarray. They had no answer to Shamrocks speed and movement. Utterly dominant at midfield, and with Karl Murphy and Collie Burns to the fore, the Shamrocks preferred tactic of quick, early ball into space was causing untold damage.
The Loughran twins were also in eye-catching form; Gareth giving Ronan Murtagh no room to breathe at one end, Brendan in the role of target man at the other.
It was a team effort that was doing the damage though, as indicated by their first five scores coming from different players: Murphy, Adrian McGreevy, Conor McCoy, Noel Heaney, Martin Keenan – with only a Shane Mulholland free in reply.
By this stage Ballyholland had already lost Mark O’Hare to injury and Kieran Murphy had been called on to make a couple of easy, but vital stops.
A terrific angled point from Robbie Quinn might have signalled the start of a Ballyholland revival another day, but still the Shamrocks did not let up and a brace from Loughran was complemented with a pair of frees from McCoy and Murphy to increase their side’s lead to seven points.
Ballyholland had to be better than what they were showing. They needed players to stand up and show themselves to be at least every bit as good as their counterparts… and led by Quinn, along with the likes of Damian McCrink, Mattie Shields and Colman Smith, one by one they were coming into the game.
Quinn worked hard to bang over another left-footed effort before the Harps finally produced a free-flowing move worthy of the game they were playing in, as a series of quick passes found John Barry in enough room to take a score.
That proved to be the last kick of the half. It was a sign of things to come.
Maybe that score gave them the confidence, or maybe the realisation that they were extremely lucky to be only five points down gave them hope, or maybe the fact that Brendan Loughran tore strips of them at the interval shook them out of their skins, but the Ballyholland side that returned for the restart were in mo mood to be bullied anymore.
The first ten minutes of the second half saw Ballyholland at their destructive best.
Within seven minutes a five point deficit had been turned into a four point cushion. How did this happen? Well, the key factor was at midfield, where Ballyholland finally got on top; no longer were the Harps backline being worked into the ground, no longer were their forward line starved of possession
But there was more at play than that. Colman Smith and Mattie Shields assumed responsibility and were playing as though their lives depended on it, while Shane Mulholland began to lead Damien Rafferty on a merry dance. Mulholland was supporting the play everywhere, but more critical was how he began to use his repertoire of passing to bring Ronan Murtagh into play.
Up to this point, Gareth Loughran had used everything in his power to make sure that Murtagh did not lay hands on any ball 50:50, or even close to that. Suddenly though, Murtagh was getting the ball exactly where he wanted it – and the county player made the Shamrocks pay.
With his first touch of the half, Murtagh brushed off a challenge and sent a shot goalward bound. Conor Farrell did well to get a deflection on the ball, but John Barry showed a tremendous poacher’s instinct to guide the ball into the net with his fist from the most acute of angles.
The lift this goal gave Ballyholland was extraordinary. Suddenly everything seemed to fall in their favour.
Murtagh showed great strength again before sending over his first point of the day and was joined on the scoreboard by a Mulholland free.
Then, without doubt the best score of the game and probably one of the best of the season.
Shane Mulholland gathered the ball in his own half and started a move that saw around a dozen pairs of hands involved. The lines of running would have had Eddie O’Sullivan in hysterics as they carved out an opportunity for Barry to blast over.
Seconds later, a Mulholland ball over the top, Ronan Murtagh one on one with the keeper and the calmest of finishes into the bottom corner.
The Shamrocks were on the rack and needed inspiration. Kevin McGuigan entered the fray and in the end what a crucial substitution this proved to be.
Although he had to immediately watch a thirty metre effort from the impressive John Barry increase Ballyholland’s lead to five, McGuigan quietly and efficiently went about shoring up the leaks in the Shamrocks midfield and providing a platform for his side to get back into the game.
Halfway through the second half and five points down, the Shamrocks needed a lift. As pointed out McGuigan provided the calmness, but now they needed a spark.
Step forward Conor McCoy. The stats will record his kick as a ’45, but given the angle it was probably closer in range to a ’65. A huge effort when his side needed it the most.
Possession during the closing stages was even, but it was only the Shamrocks who made an impact on the scoreboard…a succession of strikes against the upright being the closest Ballyholland would come to replying.
Three fine individual scores in row, first from captain Damien Rafferty, then Heaney and Brendan Loughran brought their side to within a point.
Then it was the turn of steady hand Karl Murphy to step up and secure promotion for the Shamrocks. While Ballyholland’s free-takers could not find their mark during the closing stages, twice Murphy stepped up, from thirty metres, then fifteen, to do the business.
Shortly afterwards, the whistler Mickey Cranney blew for time. On another occasion this might have produced mass hysteria, as the result meant that neither team were losers…but not on this occasion.
It was something of a pyrrhic victory for both sides.
For the Shamrocks though, the relief must have been greater. A loss the previous week to Atticall meant they had to win to go up…which they did, but only just. In a way though they were probably more disappointed at the manner in which they allowed Ballyholland back into the game, rather than losing out on the title to their neighbours.
For all the explosiveness of their forward line, they owe a debt of gratitude to free-takers Murphy and McCoy for their newly achieved first division status. A couple of goals from that forward line during their early dominance would have killed the game off, but instead it went down to the wire.
Aside from the free-takers, they principally have players like the Loughran twins – who were Shamrocks most consistent players throughout – Martin Keenan and the substitute Kevin McGuigan to thank for giving them the opportunity to cross swords with the Harps again next season.
They can take great heart from having the stomach to fight back so strongly at the end, and this squad of players must know that with improved consistency, they could compete with most teams in Division I.
It has been levelled at this Ballyholland team before that they do not have the heart and drive to match their ability.
Anyone who saw the sheer anguish in the faces of these players after Sunday’s encounter may now have to change their mind on that opinion.
Winning the title was not enough for these footballers, they wanted to storm through these play-offs and that meant beating the Shamrocks – and revenge for the decimation endured in Fr Lynch Park earlier this season.
After a dreadful opening, their performance was built around work rate, blood and toil…and nobody personified these virtues more than Mattie Shields and Colman Smith in the backline or Robbie Quinn and John Barry amongst the forwards.
Then there was the sheer class of Shane Mulholland and Ronan Murtagh, two players who have made a fair mark at county level and the evidence was thus.
Murtagh was as tightly marked as you’ll see at club level, but he still made an extraordinary contribution to the game, being involved in at least three-quarters of all Ballyholland’s scores.
Mulholland, in the second half especially, was back to somewhere approaching his marauding best, popping up everywhere and using the ball with terrific intelligence throughout.
The big question now is, are Ballyholland fit to survive in the first division? Considering that more or less every team gaining promotion in recent seasons has returned almost immediately to the second, the evidence suggests that the Harps will have to produce something special to buck that trend.
At least most of the squad will have first division experience.
In 2000, they took more than a few teams by surprise and if a few draws had have been converted into victories would have stayed up automatically.
2001 was a horrible season by anyone’s standards, as a lack of strength in depth was cruelly exposed.
Several important players from that era have retired or moved on, which could be crucial. But on the flip-side Sean O’Hare, who missed those seasons through injury, has always been a first division (or better) full-back in everything but name and will make a huge difference. In front of him, Damian McCrink has overcome injury problems as well, and looked to the manor born at centre-back this season.
James Patterson and Paul Murphy represent a strong, settled midfield – something that was missing last time around, while Ronan Murtagh is no longer a prodigy, but a fully-fledged county player. These are just some of the improvements to the side since three years ago.
The bottom line though is that if Ballyholland can somehow match the intensity of performance displayed during these play-offs and combine with it the greater fitness required for Division I football, then anything is possible.
Na Clairseacha Abu!
K Murphy, E Campbell, S O’Hare, G Elmore, R Murphy, D McCrink, M Shields, James Patterson, P Murphy, M O’Hare (B O’Hare), S Mulholland (0-2f), J Barry (1-3), R Quinn (0-2), R Murtagh (1-1), C Smith.
Subs: John Patterson, P McAnulty, G McAteer, P McKernan, S Fitzpatrick, A McNamee, P McAteer, A McAteer.
C Farrell, A McGreevy (0-1), G Loughran, C Fleming, D Quinn (K McGuigan), D Rafferty (0-1), M Keenan (0-1), C Burns, S O’Hagan, C McCoy (0-3, 1f, 1’45), G Treanor, K Murphy (0-4, 3f), N Heaney (0-2), B Loughran (0-3), M Rafferty.
Player of the Match: Colman Smith