Omagh St Enda’s (Tyrone) 1-9 Slaughtneil (Derry) 1-10
The consensus in the run-up to this Ulster Club Football final was that these two couldn’t be separated and, for 61 minutes and more, that was exactly how it panned out at a pulsating Athletic Grounds in Armagh.
There were mere seconds to go in injury-time when Christopher Bradley fired over the winner and it was a score that had its genesis at the far end of the pitch and a tackle/foul – take your pick — on an Omagh player that will be debated all winter.
For Slaughtneil, it brings to an end a year of scarcely believable riches. Senior county titles in football and in hurling had already been collected and now a first ever provincial title and a crack at Austin Stacks next February.
This was the first time in 19 years that the Ulster decider was being contested by two sides for whom it was unknown territory, but both proved themselves more than worthy contestants.
A bumper crowd made their way to Armagh City on a perfect day for football and a superb pitch was backdropped by rows of terraced houses belching out smoke from the chimney pots.
The game itself caught fire quickly.
Less than 60 seconds had elapsed when Slaughtneil corner-forward Cormac O’Doherty claimed a high Pádraig Kelly delivery ahead of Omagh captain Hugh Gallagher and his turn and finish to the net were equally exemplary.
It was the highlight of a positive start by the Derry champions, but Omagh grew into the game and their willingness to run faster and harder at the heart of the Slaughtneil defence soon began to tell.
By half-time, the Tyrone representatives led 1-5 to 1-2, with the goal coming on the brink of half-time after midfielder Conan Grugan bolted through the middle and fed a supporting Barry Tierney at pace. The centre-back never had to break stride and the finish with the outside of his foot was delicious to watch as it ricocheted to the net via the crossbar. The pity of it for Omagh was that their experience in front of goal hit such heights all too rarely.
Time and again — in the first-half particularly — Omagh made a mess of their dominance by kicking shots wide or short and into the goalkeeper’s arms. Among the guilty were county men Ronan O’Neill and Joe McMahon.
It was a tendency that would continue to haunt them in the second half, but the bane of their existence at that stage was an inability to break even in the midfield, thanks to the efforts of men like Slaughtneil’s Patsy Bradley.
The Derry side had little difficulty addressing their issues at half-time. Too much lateral and slow play was depriving them of momentum and space and they atoned after the start by ploughing hard and direct at the opposing defence from centrefield.
Omagh stayed with them for the first ten minutes or so of the second period, before four points in succession from the 43rd to the 48th minute took Slaughtneil from two points behind to one in front and on the cusp of victory.
Omagh’s difficulties were highlighted by the waning influence of Joe McMahon, who found the game passing him by, but a Ronan O’Neill free on the brink of the 70th minute seemed to secure a stalemate and 20 minutes of extra-time.
By now, the pace was frenetic. As you would expect.
By the time the clock entered the red, it was Omagh pushing hardest for the win, but their chances of stealing the defining score were scuppered when centre-forward Jason McAnulla appeared to be pushed in the back deep in the Slaughtneil half. No foul, said the referee.
Within seconds, Slaughtneil had moved the ball 80 metres to within sniffing distance of the Omagh penalty area where Christopher Bradley took possession and stitched his name into his club’s folklore with a booming point.
Seconds later and it was over and Armagh was a medley of delirium and devastation.
Omagh had some justification in feeling peeved. McAnulla had been hauled down early in the second-half as well as he was bearing down on goal and then, too, their protests were waved away as undeserving.
On moments like that...
Ultimately, they may come to the conclusion that it was their inability to capitalise on their first-half dominance that cost them against a Slaughtneil side that, with a dozen dual players among them, has come to understand more than most what it takes to win.
Scorers for Omagh St Enda’s: B Tierney (1-1); C O’Donnell (0-2); R O’Neill (0-2 frees); H Gallagher, Joe McMahon, A Grugan, C O’Neill (all 0-1).
Scorers for Slaughtneil: C O’Doherty (1-2); C Bradley (0-4); B McGuigan, R Bradley, G Bradley (all 0-1); Paul Bradley (0-1 free).
OMAGH ST ENDA’S: R Clarke; H Gallagher, Justin McMahon, S Mullan; C McLaughlin, B Tierney, C McMahon; Joseph McMahon, C Grugan; A Grugan, J McAnulla, C O’Neill; C O’Donnell, R O’Neill, C Meyler.
Subs: J Colton for O’Donnell (49); C Clarke for C O’Neill (54).
SLAUGHTNEIL: A McMullan; F McEldowney, K McKeigue, B Rodgers; C McKeigue, C Cassidy, B McGuigan; Patsy Bradley, P McGuigan; P Kelly, C Bradley, R Bradley; G Bradley, Paul Bradley, C O’Doherty.
Subs: P Cassidy for Kelly (40); P McNeill for Rodgers (43); S McGuigan for R Bradley (47).
Referee: C Branagan (Down).
The final move. A length–of-the-pitch score that was super in its execution from start to finish but which will forever be cursed by Omagh players and supporters who bayed for a foul on Jason McAnulla.
Talk of the town
The crowd, all 9,230 of the people who wedged in to the Athletic Grounds. Super attendance for this level at this time of year.
Did that just happen?
Ulster football is a slugfest, right? Not always. This may not have been fantasy football, but it took 47 minutes for the first score to come from a free. Only one more followed.
Best on show
Patsy Bradley got the official nod but Christopher Bradley’s four points from play were golden on a day scores were at a premium. And none more so than his injury-time winner.
Black card watch
We could complain and say there were at least two that looked like certainties but that we’re ignored, but that record has long been broken.
Mickey Moran worked the oracle at half-time, with Slaughtneil emerging as a changed outfit on the restart.
The man in black
Down’s Ciaran Branagan stopped play just over 30 times for various offences, but his failure to offer one more to Omagh in the closing minutes was a talking point.
Slaughtneil face Austin Stacks in the All-Ireland semi-final in mid-February.
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