Ballyhale Shamrocks 1-12 O’Loughlin Gaels 0-19: Threequarters way through at Nowlan Park yesterday the 9,130 attendance at last began to stir. The first half had been tepid.
The second half had commenced with O’Loughlins drawing level, then Ballyhale Shamrocks hitting three points in a row to go a goal clear. The latter seemed to possess an extra gear their opponents didn’t, an ability to pull out a run of scores whenever threatened, a knack of keeping the enemy at arm’s length while tapping over the points to order. It looked like being a seventh Kilkenny title in 11 seasons for Henry Shefflin and co.
And then what had seemed probable, if not downright inevitable, gradually turned to vapour. O’Loughlins, seeking redemption after defeat by Clara in last year’s decider, kept plugging away; Mark Bergin, who’d started for Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Waterford, kept knocking over the placed balls; the city side were back level by the 43rd minute and moments later took the lead for the first time all afternoon when Danny Loughnane found the range from 50 metres on the left.
The game was afoot. The crowd came alive. Under a darkening sky the sense that O’Loughlins genuinely believed in themselves was palpable. What’s more, it soon transpired that Ballyhale did not in fact boast that extra gear. They managed a mere two points in the closing 23 minutes.
That was no fault of TJ Reid, by a distance their most dangerous attacker. But Colin Fennelly was only seen in patches while Shefflin faded at midfield after landing a good point in the first half and ended up on the edge of the square at the denouement as the men from south Kilkenny were reduced to the Hail Mary option.
In addition to self-belief O’Loughlins, chasing a first county title since 2010 and a fourth ever, were blessed with notable accuracy.
It took them until the 59th minute to register their second wide of the second half, every other arrow having hit the target.
Arguably the most important shaft of all was the one from Martin Comerford that put them 0-15 to 1-11 ahead in the 49th minute.
From the angle he was at, way out on the left-hand touchline, he had no right to attempt it, but Comerford, on yesterday’s evidence as mobile and effective a ballwinner as he was during his apogee a decade ago, has long had the dubious distinction of being able to nail the difficult shots while missing the easy ones.
So it was in this instance. He split the posts and in doing so lit the fuse.
O’Loughlins took off and added four points in the next six minutes via Loughnane, substitute Sean Bolger, midfielder Paddy Deegan, who was another of the heroes of the hour, and the inevitable Bergin free.
That left them four ahead, and when at the other end Shefflin misjudged a long ball from Darren Mullen and O’Loughlins cleared their lines it was apparent that even Shamrocks, three times All Ireland champions since 2007, weren’t going to magic their way out of this one.
The winners’ manager, former Offaly star Aidan Fogarty, was effusive in his praise of their defence. “I thought out backs were terrific in the second half.
The pain of last year was a factor. But the players believed and believed all season and they grew as a force as the season progressed.”
Old hands like Comerford and centre-back Brian Hogan – yes, he’s still going too - had provided wonderful leadership, Fogarty added, as had the Kearns brothers, Andy and Eddie, in the full-back line.
The only goal of the game arrived as early as the sixth minute. TJ Reid sashayed through the O’Loughlins defence, rode a couple of tackles, stumbled briefly but carried on and eventually placed the sliotar off his right side past Stephen Murphy. Beautifully done.
The remainder of an eminently forgettable half was a tale of Bergin frees at one end and replies by a variety of Ballyhale men at the other.
The interval arrived with the favourites leading by 1-7 (1-5 from play) to 0-8 (0-2 from play).
Pretty clear from that breakdown who was likely to win, you’d have thought. You’d have been so, so wrong.
Scorers for O’Loughlins:
M Bergin 0-11 (10 frees, 1 65’); D Loughnane and M Comerford 0-2 each; P Butler, P Deegan, S Johnston and S Bolger 0-1 each.
Scorers for Ballyhale Shamrocks:
TJ Reid 1-5 (3 frees); B Aylward, M Aylward, H Shefflin, C Fennelly, E Reid, P Reid and P Mullen 0-1 each.
S Murphy; A Forristal, A Kearns, E Kearns; A O’Brien, B Hogan, H Lawlor; P Butler, P Deegan; A Geoghegan, M Kelly, D Loughnane; S Johnston, M Bergin, M Comerford.
S Bolger for Johnston, (47).
J Connolly; K Mullen, P Holden, D Mullen; R Reid, J Holden, B Aylward; M Aylward, H Shefflin; C Fennelly, E Reid, TJ Reid; R Corcoran, P Reid, P Mullen.
J Cuddihy for Corcoran, (45); D Hoyne for P Reid, (58).
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