The rain may have been lashing down and the wind howling around Healy Park but that did not deter the ecstatic band of Craigbane supporters from remaining on the Omagh pitch long after the referee had blown the final whistle on this absorbing provincial decider.
Seamus Mullan reports
Photographs: John Merry
There was laughter and joy in the air as they celebrated a second Ulster Intermediate football title. The margin may have been minimal but it mattered not, very much a case of ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’.
Never mind that they needed a Lee Moore point deep into added time to secure the narrowest of victories, their moment had come and they sure savoured it when team captain Gavin Conwell raised the cup to the heavens.
To their credit the Culloville players - disappointed, distraught and dismayed in equal measure after what had happened during the game - remained on the Healy Park Pitch for the presentation.
A delighted Craigbane captain Gavan Conwell, moments after receiving the cup, claimed, “Tremendous night! Tremendous year! So proud to be standing here as captain after winning the Ulster title! Those players have worked so hard over the last 12 to 24 months. I can tell you we are a proud bunch of players tonight.
“Everyone has been so supportive this week. We have got messages from all over the world this week, wishing us all the best, from as far away as Australia and America, from the McKernan brothers, the McElhinney’s in Australia! It’s been unbelievable!”
‘Unbelievable’ could also be used to describe a game that was more a war of attrition than a contest of class, with Culloville manager, the former Crossmaglen hero John McEntee choosing his words carefully and judiciously after the game.
“To be honest, I don’t think it was a dirty game at all, “ he explained, “It was massively frustrating and yes, it was always going to be tough with two men off in the first half. Some of the decisions I thought were strange and you just can’t plan for things like that.”
For certain it was not a ‘dirty’ game but there were some crunching challenges that definitely warranted ‘cards’.
Right from the opening minutes the referee opted to dish out yellow cards like confetti at a wedding and it was no surprise, indeed it was inevitable, that some player or other would pick up a second and then the red.
Culloville had the advantage of the gale force wind that blew straight down Healy Park from the town end but, by the time they had laboured to just a three point lead after the 20 minute mark with scores from Kieran Hatzer, Colm Watters and Seamus Watters, they had also racked up seven wides.
More importantly the first two named were among the four Cullaville player to be booked, and when Kingham in the 24th minute and Watters in the 27th minute picked up second yellow cards, the South Armagh outfit were in deep bother.
There will be little sympathy for the two Culloville players who were dismissed, such was their recklessness in a situation where cards were coming thick and fast from a referee who had no empathy at all with a game in such trying and difficult conditions.
That the referee saw fit to dish out seven yellows plus two reds to Culloville and eight yellows and one red to Craigbane beggars belief. And yet one of those Culloville yellows should have been a certain straight red - not a second yellow - while the referee then let off one of their booked players when he committed the clearest ‘yellow’ card foul of the evening!
However his performance cannot justify the actions of the Culloville players and others, who surrounded and jostled the referee at the final whistle.
All the while Craigbane played with great determination and discipline, with Fergal Crossan a colossus at full-back where he restricted the loser’s top scorer Kieran Hatzer to just one point in the first half.
Such was the control of a compact Craigbane defence that not a single Culloville player scored more than a point over the hour!
Just after the second Culloville player saw red, Craigbane opened their account and it was fitting that player of the game, Bliain Gormley, got their only score of a frenetic 30 plus minutes.
Even though the outstanding Fergal Rowland came forward in the final minute of the half to put the Armagh side 0-04 to 0-01 ahead, Craigbane would have been happy they were not further behind.
Any thought that the wind alone, and even with a two man advantage, would win the game for Craigbane were soon dispelled and captain Gavan Conwell agreed they had made hard work of overcoming the Armagh side.
“We did make hard work of it but out there that Culloville team was no easy team. Every tackle they made they did hit us hard. They did shake us but we regrouped at half time. We came back and we were not far away.
“They put it up to us in the second half but what they did was that they put six backs against our six forwards. We were always afraid of their counter attack so we had to keep players back.”
But it also meant that Craigbane did not fully utilise their two man advantage, the now crowded midfield playing into Culloville’s hands. They made it a ‘dogfight’ and for long periods they dominated the exchanges, with Rowland ferrying the ball effectively as Culloville tried hard to keep possession.
It was just as well that Fergal Crossan, and the rest of the defence played controlled and strong football, with the magnificent Gormley asserting his authority more and more in the middle third of Healy Park.
And it was Gormley in the 43rd minute who got Craigbane off the mark in the second half for 0-04 to 0-02, another seven minutes elapsing before Lee Moore took a pass from Conwell and cut the lead to the minimum.
When the mercurial Gormley, who was by now in dominant mode in the congested middle third, tied the scores at 0-04 each, despite a hefty challenge as he shot from corner back Meegan, with ten minutes left, Craigbane looked all over winners.
Gormley then turned provider three minutes later as he set up Cathal O’Kane for the lead point, 0-05 to 0-04, but Culloville simply refused to buckle, even though they must have been tiring rapidly with the exertions of thirteen against fifteen in most difficult conditions.
Two minutes from the end of normal time Johnny McGeeney, who should not have been on the field at that stage, knocked over the equalising point.
With four minutes of added time signalled Craigbane centre half back Rory Moore picked up a second yellow card and was sent off, Gormley then shown the 14th yellow card of the game.
Two minutes into added time Lee Moore scored what proved the winning point and the cup was making the short journey back to Craigbane for the second time.
Team captain Gavan Conwell summed up the feelings of the Craigbane contingent, “This means so much to our club. We are steeped in history. We have a great championship tradition. We are on top of the world tonight. We’ll enjoy the night, and maybe one or two nights over Christmas.”
Craigbane scorers: Bliain Gormley 0-03, Lee Moore 0-02 and Cathal O’Kane 0-01
Culloville scorers: Fergal Rowland, Colm Watters, Kieran Hatzer, Seamus Watters and Johnny McGeaney 0-01 each
Craigbane: Paul Sharkey; Damian McLaughlin, Fergal Crossan, Martin McGinty; Brian Rainey, Rory Moore, Cathal McLaughlin; Bliain Gormley, Gavin Conwell; Adrian Devine, Cathal O’Kane, David Lowry;
Jude McLaughlin, Lee Moore, Ryan Moore. (Subs) Ruairi Gormley for Rory Moore, Blood Sub, 15 mins (Reversal 18 mins); Ruairi Gormley for David Lowry, 35 mins (inj); Adie McLaughlin for Jude McLaughlin, 52 mins; Noel Reilly for Adrian Devine, 56 mins
Culloville: Kieran McMahon; Christopher Meegan, Darren Rowland, Sean Liddy; Padraig Caherty, Fergal Rowland, Mark Watters; Padraig McGeaney, John Kingham; Shane O’Neill, Colm Watters, Niall Rowland; Johnny McGeaney, Kieran Hatzer, Seamus Watters. (Subs) Paul Kingham for Padraig McGeaney, 44 mins; Sean McGeaney for S O’Neill, 50 mins
Referee: Ciaran Brannigan (Down)