Garrycastle dare to dream

Joe McQuillan’s final whistle was still ringing in Anthony Cunningham’s ears when the first wave of St Brigid’s players and coaches were shaking his hand and offering whatever assistance they could for next month’s All-Ireland final.

How strange it must have been. He may be manager of Garrycastle but Cunningham has been a clubman of those whose demise he masterminded two days ago for 20 years. His Kiltoom home is deep in what was technically enemy territory.

Only now it is home soil. Again.

“It’s hard for me as a Brigid’s man,” he explained. “I live there. All those players I have trained and they are massive sportsmen. What a great club and the offer of help from them shows they are gentlemen through and through . We will pick their brains, no doubt about that.

“We were up there last year and I was (manager) with Brigid’s in 2005 and ’06 when Crossmaglen beat us by two points in the semi-final. Their style of play is unique, very good and copper-fastened by some excellent individuals but we are there now and what a day (is in store).”

The next outing may yet be the best of all in a campaign bloated with them.

This past six months has been littered with the shards of glass ceilings shattered by an outfit that was only founded in 1981 and didn’t play senior football until 1998: the club’s first three-in-a-row, Westmeath’s maiden Leinster club title and now this.

They have long become accustomed to a role of distinction in their own championship but they are habitually stripped of the heavyweight tag on leaving the county.

The extent of the task facing them now can hardly be overstated. Indeed, Garrycastle were still plotting a path through intermediate football back in 1997 when Joe Kernan’s Crossmaglen emerged as a force onto the national scene with their first All-Ireland.

The men from South Armagh have collected four more All-Irelands and a museum’s worth of other medals and trophies besides in the time since but Garrycastle selector Aidan Dunning seemed unfazed by all that.

“This is a very seasoned group of players,” he said of his own. “They have won everything there is to win in club football apart from an All-Ireland. We will have absolute belief in our players and they will have absolute belief in themselves. We won’t be talking about Crossmaglen. We will be going to Croke Park to be the best we can be, collectively and as a group, and I have no doubt that if we achieve that aim it will take something else for Crossmaglen or anyone else to beat us.”

They took that last step towards Croke Park after a game of drama and contrasts, one that provided blinding sun and biting cold, sweeping gales and eerie calms, points of beauty and challenges of brute force.

Garrycastle earned an early advantage but Karol Mannion’s penalty after 21 minutes handed Brigid’s a two-point lead before an interval that opened with a bout of collective handbags like those seen in Monaghan and Armagh of late.

The second period aped the first with a James Doran goal cementing a strong opening for the Leinster side but a four-point buffer began to crumble as soon as midfielder David O’Shaughnessy earned a second yellow.

The Roscommon recovery was almost complete with less than a minute to go and the minimum between them but then Brigid’s goalkeeper James Martin picked the ball off the ground and Dessie Dolan sent over the clinching free.

In a game so tight, it was only natural to look to the man who sits in the winning dugout and sleeps in the losing parish and wonder how much of an influence that peculiar piece of geography had in the final reckoning.

“I don’t think we went overboard on it. We would have known that Frankie (Dolan) plays out the field and picks out Senan Kilbride quite a lot but everyone knows that. The lads would know a lot about them as well but we played our own game.”

One more to go.

Scorers for Garrycastle: D Dolan (0-7, 6 frees); J Dolan (1-1); P Dillon (0-1); G Dolan (0-1); J Duignan (0-1).

Scorers for St Brigid’s: K Mannion (1-0); S Kilbride (0-3, 1 free); Cathal McHugh (0-2); I Kilbride (0-1); Conor McHugh (0-1); N Grehan (0-1); F Dolan (0-1 free).

Subs for Garrycastle: A Fox for McHugh (34); A Browne for Duignan (48); C Cosgrove for Dillon (50); A Daly for G Dolan (57).

Subs for St Brigid’s: J Murray for Kelly (40); P Kelly for Sheehy; D Kelleher for D Dolan (57).

Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan).

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