St Gall’s finally reach the summit

AT the time it was a shattering experience, but St Gall’s club final loss four years ago has proven to be a defining moment in their football history.

From the ashes of that defeat, they rose to establish themselves as a competitive force on the club football scene again. Yesterday afternoon in Croke Park they arrived back at a national decider stage for the first time since 2006 and it was perfectly clear that the Belfast club had come to right the wrongs of the past

In a desperately disappointing game of football, St Gall’s comfortably overcame Clare representatives Kilmurry-Ibrickane to become the first All-Ireland club football champions from Antrim. The nerves and uncertainty that had crippled their challenge four years ago against Salthill-Knocknacarra were notably absent.

For Kilmurry-Ibrickane it was a miserable conclusion to a championship voyage that has been both joyous and memorable. A leading question beforehand was whether their lack of big day know how would count against them. Those fears came to pass, particularly in the first-half as the West Clare men struggled to settle and express themselves. Their semi-final victory against Portlaoise had been underpinned by an explosive start but they never managed to replicate that form here. In that game the Quilty men had booked their final berth by half-time, whereas yesterday they trooped in at the interval to reflect on a chastening 30 minutes of football.

It was difficult for Kilmurry-Ibrickane to comprehend as they had enjoyed a start plucked from a dream. After Kieran McGourty measured a shot to perfection between the posts for St Gall’s after 25 seconds, Kilmurry-Ibrickane’s response was stunning. Straight from the kickout they won possession and wing-back Declan Callinan, who regained his starting place after missing the semi-final through suspension, dashed upfield before punching a lovely pass to Stephen Moloney who was careering in on goal. The wing-forward cooly rifled a shot to the net and the West Clare red and green sea that inhabited the Cusack Stand began to dream of glory.

But that was the end of the good news for Kilmurry-Ibrickane. St Gall’s refused to panic. Instead all over the pitch they started to rule with an iron fist and essentially bossed the remainder of the exchanges. In defence St Gall’s team were compact and resilient when it came to frustrating Kilmurry-Ibrickane offensive threats. St Gall’s had been clearly forewarned about the threat contained in the Kilmurry-Ibrickane full-forward line, who after a combined 1-7 return against Portlaoise only managed 0-2 here, with just a single point from play.

Corner-backs Paul Veronica and Colin Brady were neat and tidy all day long, while outside them Anto Healy was in superb form along the right flank. St Gall’s midfielders have been monuments of strength all year and Sean Burke and Aodhán Gallagher maintained that form to wipe out Kilmurry-Ibrickane in that sector. When Gallagher knocked over a stylish point in the 17th minute, St Gall’s were back level at 1-0 to 0-3 and then their waves of attacks yielded a flood of scores.

At the close of play, every St Gall’s player from number eight to 15 had made the scoresheet. That was an immensely satisfying statistic as a team that had hitherto been reliant on sharpshooter CJ McGourty, suddenly started to distribute the scoring burden around the team. By the interval they lead 0-8 to 1-1 with Terry O’Neill and Kevin McGourty landing some terrific points. After the break they maintained that momentum with Kevin Niblock and CJ McGourty finding their range and the match was over as a contest by the 35th minute.

If St Gall’s had a fruitful afternoon in front of the posts, Kilmurry-Ibrickane toiled up front to no avail. They were not able to punch holes in a tight St Gall’s rearguard while their decision making in possession was suspect as they were turned over on several occasions. Shane Hickey, Enda Coughlan and Stephen Moloney relentlessly tried to drive them on, and Moloney emerged as their best threat with a 1-2 return over the hour.

The closest they managed to get on the scoreboard was within four points as they trailed 0-12 to 1-5 in the 60th minute but the goals Kilmurry-Ibrickane needed to rescue themselves never looked like materialising. St Gall’s had been wasteful in the final quarter of the game but it was fittingly man-of-the-match Kevin Niblock who capped off a momentous day for the Antrim giants with a late point.

Scorers for St Gall’s: CJ McGourty 0-3 (0-1 ‘45, 0-1f), Kevin McGourty, K Niblock 0-2 each, A Healy, S Burke, A Gallagher, T O’Neill, R Gallagher, Kieran McGourty 0-1 each.

Kilmurry-Ibrickane: S Moloney 1-2, J Daly (0-1f), I McInerney (0-1f), M O’Dwyer 0-1 each.

Subs for St Gall’s: K Stewart for O’Neill (46), S Burns for Burke (55), S Kennedy for Veronica (60) Subs for Kilmurry-Ibrickane: E Talty for Hogan (12), O O’Dwyer for Talty (33), M McCarthy for O’Connor (42), B Moloney for Killeen (inj) (50), P O’Dwyer for Downes (53).

Referee: Derek Fahy (Longford).

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