And Stephen Stack is right — Shane Carroll shouldn’t be the fall guy.
Sure, had he converted his 60th minute free, the Kerry and Munster champions may well have redeemed themselves in what was left on the clock or even in extra-time. At the same time, had he lofted it over the bar it would have papered over a lot of the cracks.
Stacks actually led for large swathes of the game but their failure to retain those advantages was ultimately their downfall. When they scored a second goal three minutes after their first Kieran Donaghy moved to midfield to offer protection before he returned to the edge of the square soon after. An extra body around the middle might just have applied a brake to the Slaughtneil recovery that followed.
The same could be said in the second-half when, facing the wind, Stacks stuck with a three-man full-forward line for the most part. At times, it even looked as if they were playing with four. The tactic seemed dubious when Slaughtneil were regularly isolating Stacks men in possession around the middle.
Donaghy was eventually repositioned in the middle as Stacks chased an equaliser in the dying stages after Cormac O’Doherty had put Slaughtneil ahead in the 56th minute. But he could make no headway as the Derrymen surrounded him.
Stephen Stack defended the game-plan. “They tend to crowd the middle a lot. If you look at the game in its totality you’d probably find both sides broke even around the middle because statistically at half-time the breaks and possession was 50-50. I can guarantee for the second-half that was a similar situation.
“It was that tight, there was only a point in it. I don’t think they totally dominated us for the game; we didn’t dominate them for the game.”
Any other day, this game would have all been about Donaghy. If it wasn’t his sledging battles with Slaughtneil defenders in the first-half, it was his winning of Stacks’ two first-half penalties. If it wasn’t his clashes with markers, then it was his crushing shoulder on Christopher Bradley, which won his side that late Carroll free and left his opponent with a broken collarbone.
Stacks were trailing by a couple of points when he was first fouled by Chrissy McKaigue in the 13th minute. Pa McCarthy’s penalty blast was saved by Antóin McMullan but he delivered with the follow-up strike. Donaghy had actually managed to lay off the ball to Shane O’Callaghan who found the net but David Gough, apparently ignoring the advantage rule, called back the play for the infringement.
Three minutes later, McCarthy was again placing the ball at the Town End after McKaigue infringed as Donaghy attempted to claim another long ball. The defender was booked and McCarthy’s finish was deadly to give Stacks a 2-3 to 0-4 cushion.
“I think the story of the first-half was the first 15 minutes,” said Stack. “We were ferocious around the middle, we were very clever with our kick-outs. We didn’t kick the ball out to them which is what they would have expected us to do, I think. We worked the ball up the field and got ourselves up into good positions and were direct when we had the ball and we needed to be direct. That’s how we got our two goal opportunities.”
They were still five up with as many minutes of the half remaining when Christopher Bradley kicked his first of two points in quick succession. Padraig Kelly added another and Stacks were ruing a lost kick-out on the half hour mark when after Slaughtneil claimed it Barry McGuigan soloed through and struck for goal. His first shot hit the base of the post but his follow-up was good and Slaughtneil were ahead once more.
Stack added: “I think what happened in the second 15 minutes was they got on top of us around the diamond and we just couldn’t hold onto that stranglehold in the middle and they started to work the ball up and got some frees and put them over. Then, of course, the goal before half-time. At the same time, we didn’t in any way panic. We were in situations like that before.”
A Carroll point saw the sides go in level at the interval, 2-5 to 1-8, after a testy first-half when Gough dished out five yellow cards. The second-half was a tamer affair although Stacks again were in the ascendancy for most of it. Donaghy and Greg Horan points put them two up with 19 minutes left and while that was wiped out by a quick Slaughtneil brace a long range 44th minute Mannix free saw them take the lead once more.
Slaughtneil responded strongly with Gerald Bradley and Chrissy McKaigue points as Stacks struggled to clear their lines. A Carroll free in the 53rd minute levelled the game for the sixth time but three minutes later O’Doherty proved the match winner with a score from distance.
The stage was set for Carroll to be the lifesaver after Donaghy had forced an injured Bradley to foul the ball but his difficult free flew wide and with it Stacks’ hopes of giving their boisterous supporters a parade to Croke Park.
Scorers for Slaughtneil: P Bradley (0-4, frees); B McGuigan (1-1); C Bradley (0-3); G Bradley (0-2); Patsy Bradley, P Kelly, C McKaigue, C O’Doherty (0-1 each).
Scorers for Austin Stacks: P McCarthy (2-1, 1-0 pen); S Carroll (0-4, 3 frees); D Mannix (0-2, 1 free); S O’Callaghan, K Donaghy, G Horan (0-1 each).
Subs for Slaughtneil: S McGuigan for G Bradley (52); P Cassidy for C Bradley (inj 70+1).
Subs for Austin Stacks: D O’Brien for M Collins (h-t); W Kirby for D Bohan (44).
SLAUGHTNEIL: A McMullan; B Rodgers, C McKaigue, K McKaigue; C Cassidy, B McGuigan, F McEldowney; Patsy Bradley, P McGuigan; P Kelly, C Bradley, R Bradley; G Bradley, Paul Bradley, C O’Doherty. AUSTIN STACKS: D O’Brien; R Shanahan, B Shanahan, C Jordan; D McElligott, F McNamara, P McCarthy; W Guthrie, G Horan; D Bohan, S Carroll, M Collins; D Mannix, K Donaghy, S O’Callaghan.
Referee: D Gough (Meath).