Not a bad way to sign off, mind; the Limerick teacher-training college capturing a historic first Fitzgibbon Cup crown following two periods of extra-time during which the lead changed hands on six occasions.
Leant against the wall outside the victorious dressing-room, the former Limerick manager put Mary I’s breakthrough up there with the All-Ireland final win of ’73.
“This is a team that I had as Freshers and they came up along the ranks. I am getting emotional now… never did I think I would see the day that Mary I won a Fitzgibbon,” remarked the winning manager.
“I loved it, but today is the last day. I’m delighted that we’ve gone out on a winning note.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, it would be up there with the 1973 All-Ireland because of the way they hung in – we went ahead, we lost the lead, we went behind, we came back, we went ahead, we lost the lead, but we kept on coming back and it just shows the tremendous heart that the team have.”
Having forged two ahead approaching the end of normal time courtesy of points from Sean Linnane and a huge John Meagher score, Mary I had the wind in their sails to finish the job.
UL, though, refused to lie down and a John McGrath free reduced the gap to the minimum on 56 minutes. The contest went from busy to frantic thereafter, both teams exhausting every last ounce of energy and effort to emerge victorious. UL sub Gearóid Hegarty produced a vital flick to dispossess Linnane in front of goal. Ronan Maher rose highest at the other end to grab the sliotar ahead of McGrath as the play swept up and down the field at breakneck speed.
Kevin Hehir drilled wide with his equalising effort, Linnane letting UL off the hook when off target in the subsequent action. Eight seconds then from the end of the two minutes of stoppages allocated, the sliotar popped out to the unmarked Tommy Heffernan and the Limerick University sub split the posts to force extra-time – 3-12 to 1-18 it finished.
The entertainment barometer was in danger of breaking during the first 10-minute period of extra-time as 11 scores were registered. The sole negative by this juncture was the rising casualty count. Mary I midfielder Colm Galvin was substituted on 41 minutes and did not return, while UL centre-back Jason Forde sat out extra-time through injury. Declan Hannon also failed to go the distance.
Crucial for Cregan’s side was the reintroduction during extra-time of Darragh O’Donovan and David Reidy, the latter redeployed to midfield when returned. The second wind of both players, added to Seamus Kennedy’s introduction, had a telling impact on proceedings.
Mary I, again, looked to have done enough when opening up a two-point lead as the clock edged towards 80 minutes. Again, UL summoned a response. Tommy Heffernan clipped his fifth and a second period of extra-time beckoned when McGrath stroked over a routine free following a controversial call by Owens to penalise Ronan Maher.
Yet another from the stick of Heffernan, in reply to a Cian Lynch point, tied proceedings for the 19th time. Lynch and O’Donovan points clasped a Mary I hand onto the cup and their grip tightened when John Meagher blocked Tom Morrissey’s 89th minute goal drive.
“I went up the corner away from it during extra-time. I couldn’t take the pressure,” continued Cregan.
“It is amazing how they gelled. That is the soul of Mary I. It’s because it’s a small college and everybody knows everybody else. Whereas if you go to UL, UCC or NUIG, you are just one of thousands.”
“That was one of the most unbelievable games I have played in,” said top-scorer Declan Hannon. “We had it won and lost so many times throughout the game, but we’d have stayed until midnight to win.”
D Hannon (1-12, 0-9 frees); C Lynch (0-5); D O’Donovan (0-1 free), S Linnane, D Reidy (0-3 each); D Corry, J Meagher, S Cahill, T Gallagher (0-1 each).
J McGrath (2-7, 0-5 frees, 0-1 ’65); T Heffernan (0-6); T Morrissey (1-1); C Martin, K Hehir, A McGuane (0-2 each); J Forde, C McInerney (0-1 each). MARY I: M O Conghaile (Galway); A Ryan (Tipperary), R English (Limerick), E Quirke (Clare); J Meagher (Tipperary), T Stapleton (Tipperary), R Maher (Tipperary); C Galvin (Clare), D O’Donovan (Limerick); S Linnane (Galway), C Lynch (Limerick), D Reidy (Limerick); D Hannon (Limerick), N O’Meara (Tipperary), D Corry (Clare).
M O’Neill (Clare) for Galvin (41 mins, inj), T Gallagher (Tipperary) for Reidy (50), S Cahill (Tipperary) for O’Donovan (54), S Kennedy (Tipperary) for Linnane (60), D Reidy (Limerick) for Quirke (60), D O’Donovan (Limerick) for O’Meara (69, inj), S Linnane (Galway) for Gallagher (74), T Gallagher (Tipperary) for Hannon (79, inj).
P Maher (Tipperary); S Roche (Galway), J Browne (Clare), G Ryan (Clare); B Heffernan (Tipperary), J Forde (Tipperary), B Stapleton (Tipperary); A McGuane (Clare), K Hehir (Clare); D Fitzgerald (Clare), J McGrath (Tipperary), C Martin (Kilkenny); K O’Brien (Limerick), T Morrissey (Limerick), C McInerney (Clare).
T Heffernan (Tipperary) for Fitzgerald (41 mins, inj), G Hegarty (Limerick) for Stapleton (43), A Murphy (Kilkenny) for O’Brien (57), M Casey (Limerick) for Hehir (60), P Ryan (Limerick) for Forde (60, inj), B Maher (Tipperary) for McGuane (72), PJ Scully (Laois) for Murphy (85).
J Owens (Wexford).