DRAMA before the throw-in and drama at the death in Waterford IT sports campus on Saturday, as the University of Limerick grabbed a late, late goal from sub Thomas O’Brien to win the Fitzgibbon Cup.
UL looked set for extra-time against Limerick Institute of Technology but O’Brien’s smartly batted effort put his side over the line and capped a memorable comeback.
It was a finale befitting the day: UL manager Ger Cunningham had his pre-game speech interrupted by a phone call confirming that Shane Dooley’s appeal against a red card in the semi-final had failed.
Cunningham’s men then went out to face a gale and began to leak scores.
“The team which could perform best against the breeze was always going to win,” said Cunningham afterwards. “Other teams going nine points down might have dropped their heads.”
UL didn’t, but they were under severe pressure. LIT were driven on by James McInerney at centre-back, who pointed two frees from his own half, and they dominated for much of the first period. They bagged goals in the 10th minute from Seán Tobin and, following a string of calm handpasses, a peach from Donie Reale in the 24th.
On 25 minutes it was 2-7 to 0-4 in LIT’s favour, but the game then took a twist.
“We were nine points up but one of their guys went down injured,” said LIT coach Davy Fitzgerald. “Fair play to him. There was nothing wrong with him, and we’d have done the same, and they went on and got two or three vital points.”
Fitzgerald was right: Patrick Cronin (two) and Andrew Quinn (free) ensured that UL trailed by six instead of nine at the break, 0-7 to 2-7.
“It made my life very easy at half-time,” said Cunningham. “Nine points is hard but the three points before the break were inspirational. I didn’t have much to say. Then we got four points in a row (after the break). That shows the character we had. We coped against the elements that little bit better and unfortunately for LIT I think the breeze picked up a little, even, in the second-half.”
Quinn (free), Cronin, Paul Kelly and Bill Beckett were the UL scorers who brought their side within touching distance of LIT, but they couldn’t close the gap after that.
Both sides flagged as the half wore on and the scoring dried up, Bernard Gaffney’s two frees canceling out points from Cronin and David Burke, but with the breeze freshening, LIT had to work harder to stay afloat.
“We were hanging on,” said Fitzgerald. “Then James McInerney got injured for us at centre-back and we had to move him up to full-forward.”
Paul Kelly of Tipperary and Offaly’s Brian Carroll pulled UL level with time almost up, only for James McInerney to put LIT one ahead. Burke, who collected the man of the match award, levelled matters, and with one of the two additional minutes played, O’Brien made his dramatic intervention.
“I think we were only led once,” said LIT coach Fitzgerald. “That was a minute into injury time, but hats off to UL. Fair play to them, we can have no complaints. We played to the max and I don’t know if there was much more in us. I don’t think there was.”
His opposite number described his side’s comeback as “unbelievable”.
“What Tommy (O’Brien) did is a dream come true,” said Cunningham. “We hadn’t conceded a goal all year and then we conceded two in the first half – to bounce back is unbelievable.”
As for goalscorer O’Brien himself, he gave credit to new Limerick coach, former Irish Examiner columnist Donal O’Grady, for his smart finish: “I had it in my head that I’d go for a goal. Donal O’Grady has been drilling it into our heads to bat in the goals, so that nobody can hook you. Seán Tobin’s goal for LIT was the same; he’s a friend of mine on the Limerick panel.”
Friends before the day and friends after it, but enemies for sixty minutes. The Fitzgibbon in a nutshell.
Scorers for UL: P. Cronin, P. Kelly and A. Quinn (0-3 fs) 0-4 each, D. Burke 0-3, T. O’Brien (1-0), B. Beckett, B. Carroll 0-1 each.
Scorers for LIT: D. Reale 1-1; J. McInerney (0-3fs), B. Gaffney (0-3 fs) 0-3 each; S. Tobin 1-0, J. Hayes, S. Collins, P. Browne, P. O’Brien 0-1 each.
UL: T Lowry (Tipperary); P Stapleton (Tipperary), M Walsh (Kilkenny), S Hickey (Limerick); PJ Delaney (Kilkenny), B Bugler (Clare), K Joyce (Kilkenny); P Cronin (Cork), D Burke (Galway); B Carroll (Offaly), B Beckett (Kilkenny), P Murphy (Tipperary); K Morris (Tipperary), P Kelly (Tipperary), A Quinn (Clare).
Subs: M Boran (Kilkenny) for Murphy, 26; T Connors (Waterford) for Boran, HT; T. O’Brien (Limerick) for Beckett 48.
LIMERICK IT: M Ryan (Tipperary); E Glynn (Clare), C Cowan (Tipperary), C Cooney (Clare); J Hayes (Limerick), J McInerney (Clare), J O’Keeffe (Tipperary); S Collins (Clare), P Browne (Limerick); S Lambert (Galway), W Hyland (Laois), P O’Brien (Limerick); B Gaffney (Clare), S Tobin (Limerick), D Reale (Limerick).
Sub: C Madden (Limerick) for Gaffney (52).
Referee: M. Wadding (Waterford).
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