THE FINAL SCORE tells you Ballinderry are County Under-21 Champions again! What it doesn’t tell is you that they achived the feat by scoring just once from open play in Sunday’s Tommy O’Neill Final at a fog bound Ballymaguigan aagainst a Dungiven side that wasted numberous chances.
Fog or no fog, when a county title is at stake Ballinderry seem able to produce the goods and led by the brilliant Ryan Bell, they surprised a Dungiven team who in turn had surprised them last year.
When manager Killian Conlan woke on Sunday, he must have thought the thick fog was the answer to his prayers. At the scheduled throw-in time of 2pm, you couldn’t see from one end of the field to the other. You could just about see all the way across it. But, against logic, it went ahead. The Shamrocks, and their supporters, only began to filter through the St. Trea’s Club gates as 2pm neared, so it was delayed. When it did throw in, the fog had lifted slightly, and it seemed it was going to clear but by the end of the first half it was down again, thicker than before.
Still, it went on, and Ballinderry defied it all. Defied the fog, defied the injuries, defied the tag of underdogs and then defied the fancied Dungiven boys.
Minus Paudrig Nevin after his heart scare last week, and Fintan Bell with a hamstring injury, the Shamrocks had to reshuffle and facing a side that have held something of an Indian sign over them, the south Derry champions really had to hang tight for the first half. Dungiven were the better side in that opening 30 minutes and yet they went in just level. Three times Eugene Kelly’s side could have had goals, but three times they were turned away.
The first chance fell to Marty Burke, his fierce effort superbly blocked at source by Canice Rocks, with Stephen Cassidy bearing down on him as well. The ball fell back Burke’s way and he seemed to have found the net, but somehow Gareth McKinless got back on to the line to claw clear.
Not two minutes later, after the outstanding Kevin Johnston had eventually finished that move with the game’s opening score, Dungiven broke down the left again and Donal McGilligan (pictured above) found himself one-on-one with Cassidy. The Dungiven forward had a bit of time to steady himself but his finish was straight at the Ballinderry ‘keeper, who still earned the credit for staying on his feet and making himself big.
Time and again the north Derry boys were slicing through the middle, by-passing Aaron Devlin’s attempts to sit behind his midfield partner Ryan Bell and protect his defence. The running from deep of Johnston caused them all sorts of bother and he had the third goal chance. But from a move that began with Paddy Kelly’s terrific block and went through Burke and McGilligan, there was no return as Johnston shot off balance and fired high and wide from 15 yards.
“We honestly thought that Dungiven, by half-time, could have been out of sight with the number of chances they had, and we would have struggled to get back,” admitted Balllinderry’s Killian Conlan after the game, “But the longer it went on with us in it, we felt we were going to win it if it was tight, because we don’t lose tight matches.”
For Dungiven, it was a case of the longer it went on, the more the doubts crept in. You could see a visible shift in the pattern of the game after half-time. They simply missed too many chances. To score just seven points from 27 chances is too wasteful to win such a game.
Their forward line was well marshalled too though. In the first half Gareth McKinless, and then Darren Lawn after the break, kept Dungiven’s biggest scoring threat, Donal McGilligan, out of it. McKinless never allowed him on to his good side and Lawn let him away just once when he moved out to the wing.
And yet at the other end, Dungiven had things under control as well. An odd run here and there from Daniel McKinless and a couple of flashes from Harry Wilkinson were as much as the Shamrocks’ forward line offered.
And so a lot of it came down to the midfield battle. Ryan Bell carried off the man of the match award after the game and his ability shone through in parts, none more than his flawless free-taking which contributed five of his side’s eight points.
He was always their outlet, always the man they looked to and he would carry it when he was needed to. But all that does something of a disservice to Dungiven’s laudable efforts to contain him. Sean O’Kane competed superbly in the air on kick-outs and when Bell did try to run at them, he was often held up and turned back. That they contained that threat so relatively well and still lost will probably hurt them the most.
Kevin Johnston had got up to kick their first two scores and Eoghan Quigg kept a great right-wing effort between the sticks to help his side into a 0-3 to 0-1 lead midway through the first half.
But two Ryan Bell frees and a terrific left-footed effort from Harry Wilkinson turned it in Ballinderry’s favour at 0-4 to 0-3 before Donal McGilligan was fouled by Canice Rocks and Marty Burke registered the equaliser just before the break.
There was still time for three yellow cards to be handed out, with Gareth McKinless and Donal McGilligan scuffling off the ball and then Ryan Bell earning a caution for a very late hit that ended Kevin O’Connor’s game down along the sideline.
It never really got feisty but it was always fiercely contested and both clubs will hope the rivalry isn’t finished. There simply aren’t enough berths in a senior team, and not enough prestige around reserve football to keep boys at it.
“I’d be more worried if we had no under-21 football,” said Dungiven coach Stephen McGuigan after the game, “The backbone of that team has been playing senior football for the last two or three years and they’ll continue to do so.”
Dungiven’s bone of contention lay with the award of the last free. Paddy Kelly was stopped as he came out with the ball and as he was on the ground with the ball in hand, a free in was blown against him. Fintan Bell, not fit to start, kicked the ball twice in this whole final, and yet it was his left-footed free from 30 yards that won it. He swung another wide before Dungiven’s big chance fell to Sean O’Kane but his hanging right-footed effort just wouldn’t curl. It stayed straight, and it stayed outside the right hand post.
“There was a man over the top of the ball and he pointed for a Ballinderry free, which was the winner. It’s hard to take,” said McGuigan, “But we’ve only ourselves to blame. We could have had the game dead and buried after 15 minutes. Cast your mind back to last year, we scored 1-2 in the first five minutes and it won us the game. We had three goal chances, we hit the post, and it all comes back to haunt you.
“You have to take your chances in the first five minutes because when you’re looking them in the last five they don’t come,” he added.
Ballinderry: Stephen Cassidy; Eamon Wilson, Gareth McKinless; Darren Lawn, Canice Rocks, Enda Bell; Ryan Bell (0-5f), Aaron Devlin; Matt Quinn, Lee Martin, Harry Wilkinson (0-2, 0-1f); Daniel McKinless, Emmett McGeehan. Subs: Declan Bell for M Quinn (23), Marty Devlin for E Wilson (43), Fintan Bell (0-1f) for E McGeehan (47), Owen Wilkinson for D Bell (50)
Dungiven: Kevin Farren; Kevin O’Connor, Paddy Kelly; Kevin Johnston (0-3), Marty McCloskey, Craig Chewning; Sean O’Kane, Tomás Brady; Sean Murray, Eoghan Quigg (0-1), Donal McGilligan; Marty Burke (0-3, 0-1f), Sean O’Neill. Subs: Conor Murphy for K O’Connor (HT), Seamus Kealey for S O’Neill (50)
Referee: Gregory McWilliams (Ballinascreen)