The neutrals at Páirc Uí Chaoimh yesterday would ideally have organised a good start for The Nire and an early Stacks sending off to ensure this provincial decider was edgy and tight, and the Kerry champions seemed happy to comply in a bizarre opening 15 minutes of this gruntfest.
The game hadn’t ticked over into its eighth minute when The Nire’s stellar young talent Conor Gleeson surged through to put his side 1-3 to 0-0 ahead. It might have been worse for the raging favourites from the Kingdom, with Michael O’Gorman almost capitalising on sloppy Stacks defending for a second goal.
Never mind. The Tralee men would soon ensure that slope got a bit steeper with Shane Carroll picking up a needless second yellow card in the 14th minute. But if they have form in terms of slow starts, they’ve also shown themselves especially resilient when it comes to digging themselves out of a hole. They have the hallmarks of a team managed by a man who’s had his fair share of dog-day afternoons in the North Kerry championship at this time of year.
And in classy attacker Shane O’Callaghan — Stacks have had one or two of the genre in their time — the Kerry side had a get-out-of-jail card they were willing and happy to play at every opportunity. A fringe panellist with Kerry this year, he showed the full repertoire — strength, good in the air, cuteness, patience and finishing power — to slip home a ninth minute goal that was Stacks’ first score and their toehold in the game. Michael O’Gorman, Shane Ryan and young Gleeson were still causing plenty of bother for the Tralee defence, but the Carroll sending off brought about a strange transformation in proceedings. For starters, it meant that Kieran Donaghy was midfield for keeps for Stacks, and that O’Callaghan and David Mannix were specific inside target men. It also meant that The Nire had a man spare, and how they used him — or not, as the case may be — had a decisive bearing on the final.
It was admirably honest of Benji Whelan afterwards to admit that they didn’t plan for an extra man at any stage, but they had a half-time interval to regroup.
They needed it. In the 18th minute, keeper Tom Wall’s Russian roulette-style short kick-outs inevitably came a cropper when Stacks’ David Mannix was an unintended recipient. He goaled the gift pass. Two scores, both goals, and the Kerry champions were only a point adrift.
You could almost hear the air-release from The Nire’s balloon when Mannix pointed again from a free two minutes later. Level at the break, 2-1 to 1-4, a travesty in some respects.
Kieran Donaghy was a clever, sitting midfielder but he was a bit chatty with referee Conor Lane and his frustration showed when he was booked before the break for a high tackle.
Stacks could have no quibble with Carroll’s two yellow cards, but in the second half, they felt a lot of frustration with some of Lane’s decision-making, especially with what seemed black card fouls by The Nire players.
Shane O’Callaghan was floating serenely above all that, slaloming past three defenders to point off his weaker (really?) left foot in the opening minute of the second half. When Mikey Collins added another to put Stacks 2-3 to 1-4 ahead, we assumed the form book had righted itself.
Silly us. Craig Guiry, The Nire midfielder, teed up overlapping defender Seamus Lawlor behind the Stacks cover and Michael Moore applied a crisp 38th minute finish — their only score of the second half.
Now was a time for steady hands, but The Nire were criminally guilty of another defensive howler two minutes later, forcing keeper Tom Wall to leg block Greg Horan’s goal effort for Stacks. Penalty. And converted by wing back Pa McCarthy.
3-3 to 2-4 now, but it was evident Stacks had finally taken a firm grip on the final, despite being a player shy. The Nire were all out of sail-wind. Greg Horan was outstanding around the middle for Stacks, and Daniel Bohan did his best work dropping deep as cover.
They are not as ornate as some of their Rock Street predecessors but in today’s football climate, that’s no bad thing. Stephen Stack drafted in Jerome Stack and Billy Lee to give them that extra 10% they’ve been missing and if they are to be beaten in the All-Ireland series, it won’t be for stickability. There’s a very North Kerry feel to these townie aristocrats.
A Mannix free put them a goal in front, and when Donaghy did drift inside, he made it count — fielding and placing sub Fiachna Mangan for their fifth point with five minutes left.
William Kirby was introduced, and as his manager pointed out afterwards, became a veritable magnet for the ball. He’ll be in his 40th year when the All-Ireland semi-final against Derry’s Slaughtneil comes around in February.
But there’s 2014 to celebrate first.
Scorers for The Nire: S Ryan (1-1, one free); M Moore (1-0), B Wall (free), M O’Gorman, C. Gleeson (0-1 each).
Scorers for Austin Stacks: D Mannix (1-2, two frees); S O’Callaghan (1-1); P McCarthy (1-0, pen); M Collins, F Mangan (0-1 each).
Subs for Stacks: J Dennis for O’Connell (half-time); F Mangan for Collins (43); W Kirby for Guthrie (47); D Long for Mannix (55); M O’Donnell for Bohan (56).
Subs for The Nire: K Guiry for Walsh (40); T Cooney for Ryan (49); D Ryan for S Lawlor (blood sub, 55); D Ryan for C Guiry (57).
Referee: Conor Lane (Cork) AUSTIN STACKS: D O’Brien; F McNamara, B Shanahan, C. O’Connell; P McCarthy, C. Jordan, D. McElligott; W. Guthrie, G Horan; S. O’Callaghan, S. Carroll, D. Bohan; D.Mannix, K. Donaghy, M. Collins. THE NIRE: T Wall; J Walsh, T. O’Gorman, M. O’Gorman; D Wall, B. Wall, S Lawlor; C Guiry, S. Walsh; M Moore, M. O’Gorman, J Barron; C Gleeson, L Lawlor, S Ryan.
The game-changing moment came from the game-changing player — Shane O’Callaghan’s ninth minute goal, quarried from nothing, gave Stacks a foothold in a final that was getting away from them at 1-4 to 0-0.
The Stacks fans. They hoovered up every available bus in Tralee and got themselves a base camp for refuelling at Cork Constitution’s club grounds in Temple Hill. From there they marched, loudly, to Ballintemple, a riot of black and amber dress codes. And then the music started. A credit to the club.
Tom Wall, The Nire keeper, is evidently a bit of a thrill-seeker. Unfazed by the palpitations his short kick-out routine is causing every Nire player, coach and supporter, he persisted throughout yesterday — even after gifting a crucial second goal to Stacks in the 18th minute. You almost saluted his utter defiance.
Once again, Shane O’Callaghan’s suite of talents shone like a lighthouse. His powerful build is an asset in terms of winning the dirty ball he so frequently emerges from rucks with, but he has the football and the balance to match. And kicks scores off both feet. What’s not to like?
Referee Conor Lane shied away from what appeared three blatant black card offences.
Stephen Stack opted again not to pigeonhole his marquee man, Kieran Donaghy, on the edge of the square, instead playing him at midfield. He got a good return from Star, and from the two inside attackers, Shane O’Callaghan and David Mannix. The Nire’s Benji Whelan first used Justin Walsh as his spare man after Stacks had a man sent off, then Diarmuid Wall. Neither decision paid dividends.
Or red, as was the case for Cork’s Conor Lane yesterday. I like the Banteer man as a referee, but he did not have a good afternoon. His sending off of Shane Carroll was correct, but his interpretation of what constituted — or what didn’t — a black card, left a lot of people scratching their heads in the covered stand.
Apart from the small matter of a Tralee Town Championship semi-final against mighty Ballymacelligott, Stacks will now look forward to Christmas. However, using the holiday season wisely is not something all provincial club champions have done in the past. It is worthy of serious analysis. Stacks meet Ulster champions Slaughtneil in February’s All-Ireland semi final.