UCC do it for O’Connor

UCC 2-17 Mary Immaculate College, Limerick 2-12
Before the start of this Fitzgibbon Cup final in Salthill on Saturday Mary Immaculate College were boosted by the news that inspirational leader Declan Hannon had won his appeal against the red card issued to him in the semi-final win over Waterford IT on Friday and was free to take his place at the heart of the defence.

UCC though, had their own inspiration. Not just in this game but right through their initially painful crusade in defence of their crown. At the beginning of the college season their world was rocked by the news that Paul O’Connor, the man who had guided them for so many years, had passed away in tragic circumstances.

Captain and goalkeeper Darren McCarthy admitted O’Connor’s memory was always close to their hearts.

"Paul was always a huge part of UCC hurling, a huge part of the Fitzgibbon Cup, this was always Paul’s team. It was very hard in the beginning, we had a slow start, no training done because of the circumstances but it was at the back of our minds all year that we were doing this for Paul. We were improving as the season went on, were very fortunate to win a few earlier games but we always managed to just get over the line — that was Paul."

And UCC needed something extra on Saturday. Winners of the Ryan Cup last year, the Colleges B title, Mary I had come from nowhere to reach this, their first Fitzgibbon Cup final. In a side backboned by Hannon and Clare star John Conlan, they also had outstanding performers in full-back Robert O’Donnell, wing-back Jamie Wall, midfielder Colm Galvin and forwards Brian O’Halloran, Conor Cooney, Sean Curran and Luke O’Farrell.

"Mary I were the best team we met all year," reckoned McCarthy. "We played them a few weeks ago in Limerick and were lucky to draw with them — certainly they were the most spirited team in the competition, a small college but they played like a parish team."

With all those guys performing well, and though playing into a stiff breeze, the challengers trailed by just two points at the break, 0-9 to 0-7, their points coming from the excellent Cooney (3), Conlan (2), O’Farrell and Curran.

In reply, UCC were led in the scoring stakes by Conor Lehane (six points), Egan, Paul Haughney and Dan McCormack with a point each. The Mary I cohesion was still there as the game entered the final quarter, UCC now just a point ahead (1-12 to 1-11) after both sides had goaled, Lehane on target for UCC after a Brian Hartnett pass, Conlan replying for Mary I with a low, well-struck 20m free. That’s when it started to fall apart for the underdogs. The exertions of the previous day, when they had played almost a full game with 14 men after Hannon’s harsh red card, began to take its toll as gaps began to appear in what had been a watertight defence.

"It was there for the taking," said a disconsolate Conlan. "We needed to be on top form to win it and we weren’t. But look, we’ve given it everything all year and we can’t do anything more than that. It’s been a great achievement for the college but a pity we didn’t finish it off."

How simply things can turn. With the game still finely poised McCarthy made a brilliant catch under pressure while moments later centre-back Dara Fives produced a critical intervention as Mary I threatened. At the other end the Limerick outfit were punished for some needless fouls before Seamus Harnedy latched on to a poor back pass and his goal had UCC 2-16 to 1-11 ahead with five minutes remaining. Not that Mary I gave up — they fought right to the end, scored one goal (a Conor Cooney rifled free) and could have had another.

All the might-have-beens but, ultimately, glory again for UCC and for new team manager Eddie Enright. "It’s been an emotional year for UCC. Paul was a real driving factor in this win. We knew we had him with us. He gave us that bit of luck.

"We’d have mentioned him often during the year, it’s been very emotional — he’s a legend in the club and he’s certainly still with us."

For Mary I coach Eamon Cregan, an end, and a beginning. "This journey has ended in tears but I think it’s only the start of a bigger journey for this college. They have established themselves as a force in the Fitzgibbon Cup."

Scorers for UCC: C Lehane 1-9 (7f); S Harnedy 1-1; B O’Sullivan 0-2; W Egan 0-2; P Haughney, D McCormack, A Breen, 0-1 each.

Scorers for Mary I: J Conlan 1-4 (1-3f); C Cooney 1-3 (1-0f); S Curran 0-3; L O’Farrell 0-2.

UCC: D McCarthy (Ballymartle, Cork); S Maher (Thurles Sarsfields, Tipperary), D Glynn (Dicksboro, Kilkenny), K Murphy (Erins Own, Cork); J Barry (Upperchurch-Drombane, Tipperary), D Fives (Tourin, Waterford), W Egan (Kilbrin, Cork); B Murray (Bishopstown, Cork), P Haughney (Midleton, Cork); C Lehane (Midleton, Cork), D McCormack (Borrisoleigh, Tipperary), Brian Lawton (Castlemartyr, Cork); B Hartnett (Midleton, Cork, S Harnedy (St Ita’s, Cork), B O’Sullivan (Ballygunner, Waterford).

Subs: B Lawton (Castlemartyr, Cork) for Murray (38), A Breen (Na Piarsaigh, Limerick) for McCormack (52), W Griffin (Adare, Limerick) for O’Sullivan (59).

MARY IMMACULATE: S Nolan (Toomevara, Tipperary); C Fennessy (Clonlara, Clare), R O’Donnell (Pallasgreen, Limerick), A Ryan (Toomevara, Tipperary); J Wall (Kilbrittain, Cork), D Hannon (Adare, Limerick), E Hogan (Kilruane McDonaghs, Tipperary); N O’Meara (Kilruane McDonaghs, Tipperary, C Galvin (Clonlara, Clare); B O’Halloran (Clashmore, Waterford), W Hickey (South Liberties, Limerick), C Cooney (St Thomas, Galway); S Curran (Mullinahone, Tipperary), J Conlon (Clonlara, Clare), L O’Farrell (Midleton, Cork).

Subs: E Hogan (Burgess, Tipperary) for Hickey (52), L Considine (Patrickswell, Limerick) for E Hogan (57).

Referee: B Kelly (Westmeath).