Fortuitious Friel goal breaks O’Briens hearts

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If it was ‘last person leaving Swatragh switch the lights out’ a few weeks back for the senior hurling final, it must have been the same scenario last Sunday afternoon when most of the village made the journey to Dean McGlinchey Park for the Intermediate football final.

Seamus Mullan reports from Ballinascreen

Photographs: Mary K. Burke

While Swatragh had won two Intermediate titles before their success at Dean McGlinchey Park few present in Ballinascreen to see goal scoring hero Michael Friel accept the cup from Derry County Board chairman, John Keenan, would have been present when the last title was annexed in 1979.

Games like this enthralling and exciting encounter are so often divided by fine margins, a lucky break, an unfortunate error, a lapse in concentration or a moment of magical football.

While it would be difficult to highlight one particular moment that proved decisive, it would not be unfair to say that there were scores and misses at certain junctures that had a big influence in the game, some with greater impact because of their timing.

Swatragh had enjoyed much the better of the early exchanges and, although they hit three wides in the opening quarter, they were still well placed when Michael Kirkpatrick out-fielded Conrad Sheerin close to goal and netted to take a 1-02 to 0-01 lead in the 15th minute after Kirkpatrick from a free and Ruairi Convery had posted points inside five minutes of the start and Eunan McFeely had responded for 0-02 to 0-01.

Ten minutes from half time, after Ciaran McFeely and Nigel Bradley had halved the four point lead, Eoghan Duffy skinned his marker coming in on the left wing but could only look at keeper Michael O’Kane in disbelief when he made a superb save low down to deny him a goal at the near post, Ciaran McFeely then widing the ‘45.

Then, John Duffy sent a shot against the upright. Not particularly noteworthy then, but of much greater significance in the 59th minute when Oisin Duffy had the same hard luck when a point might just have forced a replay!

But then, had Swatragh lost, they could have reflected ruefully on the unnecessary ‘third man tackle’ of Diarmuid Dillon that gifted Foreglen a free. From there the O’Brien’s moved the ball at pace through Nigel Bradley and Cathal O’Hara to Kevin O’Connor and he raced through to blast the ball to the net for 1-04 to 1-03 in the 25th minute, a lead that the Davitt’s maintained to the interval.

Within minutes of the restart both sides lost influential players to injury, with Swatragh full-back Martin Quinn following Foreglen’s playmaker Niall McFeely to the sideline after they’d both picked up injuries.

Eight minutes into the second half, after the magnificent Conor McAtamney had scored his second point to put Swatragh 1-05 to 1-03 ahead and Eoghan Duffy had responded after a deft flick from Kevin O’Connor had unhinged the Swatragh defence, a piece of quick thinking put Foreglen in control of the game.

Phillip Mooney fouled Eunan McFeely and substitute Martin Farrell released Eunan McFeely with a quickly taken free that took the Swatragh defence by surprise. The pacy corner-forward raced through to drill the ball to the net for 2-04 to 1-05. When Kevin O’Connor put three between the sides and the momentum was definitely with the O’Brien’s.

All game there was a terrific tactical duel developing between Foreglen’s midfielder Mark McCormick and his Swatragh midfield counterpart Michael Friel, Foreglen’s centre half back Oisin Duffy and Swatragh’s towering full forward Ruairi Convery an integral sub-plot in this crucial battle of wills!

When Friel moved to full forward, as he did at stages in the game, then McCormick moved with him and, for the most part, he did a good job on the edge of the square. He was assisted by the alertness of corner backs Pauric and Conrad Sheerin who pounced on every loose ball that fell to the ground during this duel.

When this was happening Ruairi Convery moved to midfield and Oisin Duffy followed him to enact another battle in that sector.

By the midpoint of the half Conor McAtamney and substitute Liam Kearney had closed the gap to a point and then came the turning point of the game.

McAtamney made ground on the left but was fouled. Michael Kirkpatrick sent the 30m free high and deep into the goalmouth, the ball dropping just under the bar.

Foreglen keeper Ronan Tracey reached up to take the dropping ball but it came off hand and crossbar, and then possibly struck the back of a defender before it fell to ground.

It took a second or so for anyone to react, Michel Friel the first to do so as he grabbed the loose ball, and somehow squeezed it low to the net for 2-07 to 2-05.

Nigel Bradley did point a free moments later but that would be the last score of the game as Swatragh held on defiantly as Foreglen threw everything at them in the final minutes.

Mark McCormick did have to make a brilliant catch in the goalmouth on a Conor McAtamney free, the latter then doing likewise on an acute angle Nigel Bradley free.

Then came the Oisin Duffy effort in the 58th minute that tailed wide off the upright, agony and ecstasy the contrasting emotions at the final whistle.

After the game a devastated Foreglen manager Paddy Downey explained, “There’s nothing much that I can say. It’s heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, all those things. With the effort that we put in this year it’s very, very tough right now. We hit the post twice in the last few minutes and we gave away two very silly goals.

“But I’m proud of the boys. With the amount of work they’ve put in they’re out on their feet there at the end. They really kept going to the end. I’m proud of them and, as I’ve said before, they’re a geat bunch of fellas to work with. Definitely there’s potential there. The average of the team is 22 or 23. I thought this would be our year but we came up against Swatragh and Swatragh won.”

Foreglen have a crucial promotion play-off game with Newbridge this weekend.

“How do you pick boys up after that?” added Downey, “The character of the boys will be tested this week. I just hope we come through it. We’ve achieved a bit this year but just came up short.”

In stark contrast, and understandably so, Swatragh’s Ruairi Convery was elated.

“Just brilliant! Brilliant! Yeah, it was tough going. We knew coming here that it was going to be tough. We’ve played Foreglen before. It’s always going to be a tough game whenever you play them. You know what to expect.

“We played the championship semi-final on Wednesday. In the last 10 or 15 minutes fatigue set in and we had to dig out a result but thankfully we did what we were asked to do. We got through it. A one point victory in a final is as good as a 10-point victory. Victory was all that mattered to us.”

Of the crucial goal that turned the tide in Swatragh’s favour he generously conceded, “I thought in the first half we were the better team but we nearly kicked ourselves out of it. That’s been our problem all year, not scoring enough. Certainly that goal that Mickey (Friel) scored was a bit fortuitous but with Mickey in around the square he’s always going to be dangerous. He’s always going to be competing for any touch in the square. We’ll take the goal whatever way it comes. It still counts as three points. Happy! Over the moon!”

Swatragh scorers: Michael Kirkpatrick 1-02 (2f), Michael 1-00, Conor McAtamney 0-03, Liam Kearney and Ruairi Convery 0-01 each

Foreglen scorers: Eunan McFeely 1-01, Kevin O’Connor 0-01, Nigel Bradley 0-02 (1f), Ciaran McFeely and Eoghan Duffy 0-01 each

Swatragh: Michael O’Kane; Hugh Martin Turner, Martin Quinn, Phillip Mooney; Ryan Dillon, Conor McAtamney, Diarmuid Dillon; Michael Friel, James Kearney; Brian Diamond, Cathal McQuillan, Sean McNicholl; Robert McWilliams, Ruairi Convery, Michael Kirkpatrick. (Subs) Eugene O’Kane for B Diamond 25 mins; Sean McMaster for M Quinn inj 33 mins; Liam Kearney for R McWilliams 40 mins; Paul McAtamney for C McQuillan 58 mins; Thomas Og Gunning for Liam Kearney, 60 mins

Foreglen: Ronan Tracey; Pauric Sheerin, Cathal O’Hara, Conrad Sheerin; john Duffy, Oisin Duffy, Kevin O’Neill; Darren O’Kane, Mark McCormick; Kevin O’Connor, Niall McFeely, Ciaran McFeely; Eoghan Duffy, Nigel Bradley, Eunan McFeely. (Subs) Martin Farrell for N McFeely inj 32 mins; Sean Morahan for E Duffy 44 mins; Niall McFeely for S Morahan 59 mins

Referee: Aidan McAlynn (Loup)