The Kerry icon feigns to shoot and buys a little time for himself to trot clear of Shane McGuigan and fist a crucial score. Nemo, the standard bearers of club football, are clinging on for dear life.
39 minutes on the clock and the seven-times All-Ireland winners, still trailing, this time by two points, are out of possession and under the cosh. The bookmakers seem to have called it right by installing Slaughtneil as considerable favourites.
Ronan Bradley is tearing upfield for them, on the left channel, but from nowhere comes Nemo midfielder Alan O’Donovan with a perfectly timed tackle and intervention to force the turnover. The play concludes with Ó Sé winning a free high up the pitch. Slaughtneil’s Meehaul McGrath is booked for the foul and Barry O’Driscoll slots the free. O’Donovan punches the air in delight. By the time Slaughtneil eventually launch another attack and emerge from their own half they have remarkably conceded 1-3 in total.
Injury-time in the first-half of extra-time and Patsy Bradley, the bulging vein in Slaughtneil’s temple, runs up a cul de sac and is pulled for over-carrying. Luke Connolly lopes up to the ball, almost swaggering now after a thrilling performance that yields 2-5, and curls over the free to put Nemo seven points clear. There’s still the second-half of extra-time to come but Slaughtneil, finally, have been broken.
Afterwards, Larry Kavanagh almost broke into laughter when asked if he’d had any time to think about Corofin in the All-Ireland final on March 17. “We honestly haven’t looked at Corofin, sure you couldn’t, you couldn’t overlook that,” he said, gesturing back out to the field where his side had just shaken off the back to back Ulster champions. “That was a game in a lifetime.”
O’Driscoll spoke in the build-up to the semi-final tie about Connolly. “He would wreck your head with the best of them!” smiled O’Driscoll. “It’s just about kind of reining in the decision making, ‘You probably shouldn’t take that on, Luke!’ But then you say that and he could do something outrageous and pull it off. He’s one of those you have to just let do his thing.”
Connolly played exactly to type on Saturday, missing his first two frees and dropping a couple of balls into the goalkeeper’s arms yet still managing to provide the game’s inspirational moments.
Clad in base layer material and black compression socks, the big number 13 strode around the field and got through a tonne of work, trading in silk or steel depending on the situation.
“He was outstanding,” said manager Kavanagh. “He missed his two frees and was finding it hard to get away from (Brendan) Rodgers. He fell over at one stage. Things weren’t going his way but with Luke you just persevere. In every game, there’s going to be bits of magic with him.”
Connolly’s 44th-minute goal won’t make it into any highlights reel but was a reward for perseverance and ingenuity. Nemo had just moved a point clear when Ó Sé darted through the centre of Slaughtneil’s defence and fed Conor Horgan who curled a ball in that Connolly initially tried to flick goalwards. The ball deflected and broke down favourably, allowing him to kick it to the net.
Slaughtneil, true to their own battling instincts, pulled themselves out of the mire in the final quarter and outscored Nemo by 1-4 to 0-3 in that period to force extra-time.
Christopher Bradley kicked the leveller from a free, making it 1-12 apiece after the hour, after the lightest of touches by O’Driscoll on Karl McKaigue. Nemo’s fitness was remarkable late on and they dominated the additional 20 minutes, hitting seven points without reply in the first period to effectively wrap it up.
Connolly was in his element now, oozing confidence and class. Ó Se was still going strong too as was captain Aidan O’Reilly, who burst upfield time and again with the ball a la the veteran Kerry man.
Slaughtneil, chasing a third All-Ireland final place in four seasons, had nine players who started for the hurlers in their last four defeat to Na Piarsaigh a fortnight earlier. It had to have some effect on them, particularly in a marathon encounter like this.
Still, Nemo’s endurance was what they were all talking about afterwards. Kavanagh offered his players December off but they declined, opting instead for flagellation.
“I said I’d give them a break and they said,’ No, we’re going running’ and they ran for the month of December, hard running that we hadn’t done for a while,” said Kavanagh. “We put all that away for January but you saw it there in the end, we had it in the tank.”
L. Connolly (2-5, 3 frees); B. O’Driscoll (0-5, 4 frees); P. Kerrigan (0-3); T. O Se (0-2); C. Horgan, J. Horgan , J. Donovan and S. Cronin (0-1 each).
C. Bradley (0-9, 6 frees); C. O’Doherty (1-0); Shane McGuigan and B. Cassidy (0-2 each); Se McGuigan (0-1).
M. Martin; A. Cronin, A. O’Reilly (c), K. O’Donovan; T. Ó Sé, S. Cronin, K. Fulignati; A. O’Donovan, J. Horgan; B. O’Driscoll, P. Kerrigan, C. O’Brien; P. Gumley, L. Connolly, C. Dalton.
C. Horgan for Gumley (22), J. Donovan for J Horgan (59), M. Dorgan for A O’Donovan (64). O’Donovan for K. O’Donovan (e/t), C. Kiely for Dalton (76), R. Donovan for Martin (77), A. Grainey for Connolly (81).
A. McMullan; P. McNeill, B. Rodgers, K. McKaigue; K. Feeney, C. McKaigue, F. McEldowney; P. Bradley (c), P. Cassidy; S. McGuigan, R. Bradley, M. McGrath; C. Bradley, C O’Doherty, B. Cassidy.
Se McGuigan for McGrath (40); B. McGuigan for McEldowney (47). G. Bradley for R. Bradley (66), C. McAllister for Feeney (70). P. McGuigan for O’Doherty (h/t, e/t).
M. Deegan (Laois).