It wasn’t by much but Slaughtneil eventually got their historic Senior Championship ‘double’ over the line amid ugly scenes in Celtic Park on Sunday.
Only the third club after Kevin Lynch’s and Lavey to secure the feat, it was a pity Slaughtneil’s moment of glory was over-shadowed slightly by the disgraceful scenes which greeted referee Anthony Campbell’s final whistle.
That whistle followed seconds after Gerald Bradley had punched himself into Slaughtneil folklore with the crucial touch to Chris Bradley’s high, hopeful ball toward the Ballinderry square.
The Shamrocks’ frustrations were understandable given how close the call was but their reactions after the decision to award the goal - and especially at the end of the game - were not befitting a club that has graced this Championship so wonderfully in recent years.
That’s something the County Board will undoubtedly revisit in the coming days and weeks but as the dust settled on discussions of whether the ball had crossed the line, only one fact mattered - Slaughtneil were the 2014 champions in a season that is beginning to move toward fairy-tale territory for the Emmet’s.
The game itself was every bit as tight as pre-match predictions suggested. Ballinderry possessed the better individual footballers but Slaughtneil were the better unit.
Patsy Bradley, Paudie McGuigan and Chrissy McKaigue were superb throughout but it was difficult to find a Slaughtneil player who wasn’t. It was far from a perfect performance but Mickey Moran and John Joe Kearney’s team simply doesn’t know when its beaten. They never led until Bradley got that famous fist to the ball, meaning they were in front for barely 90 seconds of the match but it was enough.
Midfield was the key battle ground and the Slaughtneil duo could not be faulted. The word constantly being thrown about following the match was ‘character’ but that’s slightly disrespectful because you could equally add ‘ability’, ‘discipline’ or ‘team work’.
Ballinderry’s was a curious performance. The Shamrocks were far from their free flowing best but that was probably because they weren’t allow to operate as they normally would. Most teams are defeated before throw-in against the 2013 Ulster champions but Slaughtneil have no such inferiority complex and it was interesting to see Ballinderry retreat into a defensive shell for periods.
The wind played its part in that but it still handed the initiative to Slaughtneil who bossed possession and chances with Ballinderry playing on the break. Even against the breeze, the Emmet’s always appeared in charge of the ball even if they found scores difficult to fashion and were picked off more easily.
Never once in the 63 minutes did Ballinderry threaten to find the net and that was credit to a Slaughtneil defence that refused to allow the Shamrocks’ multi-talented forward line a foot-hold. They restricted them to the extent that Ballinderry - who only managed two points after half-time - never scored from play in that second half and six of the Shamrocks’ total of nine were from placed balls.
Brendan Rodgers, Peadar Kearney, Karl McKaigue, Barry McGuigan and Francis McEldowney won’t get as many headlines as others but they were the platform for this victory.
Ballinderry’s decision to constantly rotate their full-forward position looked a back-handed compliment to Chrissy McKaigue as the holders deliberately attempted to drag to Slaughtneil’s key player into the full-back position and away from danger areas. It had very limited success because McKaigue was everywhere and hugely influential whether in front of the full-back or breaking forward. Indeed, the constant changing of positions may have disrupted the Shamrock’s own attack which never hit the heights predicted.
Pre-match most were wondering if Slaughtneil’s double bid would eventually be their undoing with six of the hurling team that took on Cushendall last week featuring in the starting line-up but ironically they looked sharper for the run of games. Ballinderry have not had that big match intensity for a number of weeks and looked slightly off their normal pace.
The 24th minute black card loss of Aaron Devlin didn’t help them but it was the correct decision following a late tackle on Francis McEldowney.
Holders start well
The holders started with the wind at their backs and were a point to the good inside two minutes when Raymond Wilkinson scored a free but Slaughtneil were level through Chris Bradley only to see Gilligan instantly restore the Shamrocks’ advantage from another free. Wilkinson and Padrig Kelly swapped points to leave it 0-3 to 0-2 by the 13th minute.
Quick thinking from James Conway then sent Wilkinson away to point but again Slaughtneil regrouped and brought it back to a one point game thanks to Padrig Kelly who was brilliant throughout.
The Shamrocks accounted for the game’s next three points although their joy was tempered by that black card for Devlin who was replaced by McKinless.
It could have been worse though as Paul Bradley passed up a gilt edged goal chance after being put clear on the left by Chris Bradley, but the full forward dragged his shot across the face of goal and wide.
That was on 26 minutes as frees from Gilligan and Devlin, as well as an outrageous effort from McKinless with his first touch, put Ballinderry into a 0-7 to 0-3 lead with half-time approaching. Chrissy McKaigue had the final say of the half with a point hooked over his shoulder but at 0-7 to 0-4, the Emmet’s looked happy enough with the wind at their backs for the second period.
The teams swapped scores upon the restart with Chris Bradley and Gilligan on target but the Emmet’s were guilty of passing up a couple of scorable frees although Padrig Kelly did make amends by bring it back to 0-8 to 0-6 on 32 minutes.
As the game descended into a tetchy affair, both players needlessly got involved in off the ball incidents which disrupted the flow of the match and saw the scoreboard unmoved for almost 15 minutes. Paul Bradley eventually broke the stalemate with an excellent free that took Slaughtneil to within a point at 0-8 to 0-7 on 50 minutes.
When Kelly then brought the sides level from another placed ball with five minutes remaining, it was game on but Ballinderry responded through a Collie Devlin free which looked to have secured the title.
Other teams would have accepted their fate at that point but Slaughtneil rallied to snatch the title in the most dramatic way possible.
Ballinderry Shamrocks: Michael Conlan; Ryan Scott, Gareth McKinless, Kevin McGuckin; Darren Lawn, Conor Nevin, Raymond Wilson; Enda Muldoon, James Conway; Raymond Wilkinson (0-2), Colin Devlin (0-3, 3f), Dermot McGuckin; Conleith Gilligan (0-3, 3f), Ryan Bell, Aaron Devlin. (Subs) Daniel McKinless (0-1) for A Devlin (Black Card) 26 mins; Michael McIver for D Lawn, 40mins; Darren Conway for R Wilkinson, 57mins
Emmet’s Slaughtneil: Anton McMullan; Peadar Kearney, Brendan Rodgers, Karl McKaigue; Francis McEldowney, Chrissy McKaigue (0-1), Barry McGuigan; Patsy Bradley, Paudie McGuigan; Padrig Kelly (0-4, 2f), Christopher Bradley (0-2), Ronan Bradley; Gerald Bradley (1-0), Paul Bradley (0-1, 1f), Se McGuigan. (Subs) Conan Cassidy for P Kearney, H/T; Cormac O’Doherty for S McGuigan, 53mins; Padraig Cassidy for R Bradley, 60mins;
Referee: Anthony Campbell (Magherafelt)