Bridge blow the Gaels away

HOW did this happen?

How does a team five points ahead and cruising to an easy win, as O’Loughlin Gaels were with just three minutes left in the first half of this All-Ireland club SHC final in Croke Park yesterday, disappear off the radar for the rest of the game?

How does a team which is cruising for the proverbial bruising — and Clarinbridge certainly looked headed that way — end up winning at a canter?

It is difficult to explain even at this remove, because for the first 27 minutes of this game O’Loughlin Gaels looked by far the better side, and with six wides to go with their eight points, should have been further ahead. Though we weren’t to know it at the time, however, those final minutes of the first half set the tone for what was to come.

It began around the 20th minute with the shift of Alan Kerins from full-forward to midfield, a move that had worked so successfully for Clarinbridge many times before in this long campaign, most spectacularly in their extra-time All-Ireland semi-final win over De La Salle of Waterford.

Alan’s younger but bigger brother Mark then went to the edge of the square, where his size and strength would be more effective. Those two would go on to wreak havoc in the critical minutes before the break.

The comeback started with a flicked point by Alan after a pass from Mark and continued with a fine point from outstanding corner-forward Eoin Forde two minutes later, set up by the brothers Kerins.

Into the third minute of injury-time, and two crucial scores. First, the game’s first goal, Mark Kerins taking advantage of a centre by Alan and a slip by O’Loughlin’s full-back Andy Kearns to shoot home from close range. Then, within a minute, Mark slammed a blistering penalty (after he was fouled) at head-height which was deflected over for a point. And just like that, the game was level (1-7 to 0-10) with the Gaels fortunate not to be going into the dressing room trailing by two points after a first half of near domination.

The Gaels had time to get themselves right again for the second half with the breathing space provided by the break. So often you see a team which had been building up a head of steam, having their momentum broken by the half-time whistle, the opposition then coming back at them. Not on this occasion, however. A Mark Kerins free within a minute of the restart set them on their way (his shooting from placed balls was almost faultless, an area in which O’Loughlin’s marksman Mark Bergin — normally so deadly — struggled badly). Then came a succession of fine points as the pace and skill of the Galway champions began to tell. Super sub Enda Collins was again prominent in midfield, Barry Daly was immense alongside him, Alan and Mark continued to add to the total, while young Eoin Forde was proving a real problem inside for Eddie Kearns. Forde had 1-2 in the second half, his goal the final score of the match, coming in the 52nd minute after fine work outfield by veterans Jamie Cannon and David Forde in the half-back line along with wing-forward Shane Burke.

That Clarinbridge defence is more than worth a mention. Veteran Liam Donoghue was sound between the sticks, did well on at least three occasions, the last of those a fine save from a dipping Mark Bergin free in the 56th minute; Brian Burke did a faultless man-marking job on multiple All-Ireland winner and Gaels’ dangerman Martin Comerford; captain Paul Callanan was rock-steady in front of goal while Michael Donoghue augmented a fine half-back line, which — after that shaky start — formed the platform for many a Clarinbridge attack.

No question whatsoever about the merit of either the win or the winners, but whatever happened to the O’Loughlin Gaels side we had seen perform so brilliantly in the second half of so many other big games?

Two points they scored after the break, two miserable points, both from Bergin frees, never in the game at all in the second half — a mystery. No mystery about why Clarinbridge won, however — pace, pace and more pace in every line of the field, from battling Conor Forde at corner-back to the flying Paul Coen and Eoin Forde at the other end.

And of course the brothers Kerins — ah, where would a club final be without the brotherhood?

Scorers for Clarinbridge: M Kerins 1-7 (0-4f, 0-1 pen); E Forde 1-4; A Kerins 0-2; E Collins 0-2; P Coen, E Murphy, J Cannon 0-1 each.

Scorers for O’Loughlin Gaels: M Bergin 0-6 (0-2f); A Geoghegan 0-2; B Dowling, D Loughnane, M Comerford, M Nolan, 0-1 each.

Subs for Clarinbridge: E Collins for S Forde (29).

Subs for O’Loughlin Gaels: S Cummins for B Dowling (30); B Murphy for Kelly (59).

Referee: J Ryan (Tipperary).

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