Crosserlough claim league title in extraordinary contest

ACFL Division 1 final

Crosserlough 6-18

Cavan Gaels 4-23


Paul Fitzpatrick at St Matthew’s Park

A large crowd of 1,139 were treated to the most extraordinary rollercoaster of a league final at Crosskeys on Sunday afternoon as the Crosserlough and Cavan Gaels served up the most remarkable Senior League final in living memory.

The sides are due to meet in the first round of the championship which created an unusual dynamic; both wanted to win but preferably without showing their hand. The result was free-wheeling, off-the-cuff football; the game ebbed and flowed and produced countless storylines, not least Gearoid McKiernan finishing with a frankly ridiculous 3-14 to his name.

In the end, sub Emmett Boylan came up with a spectacular winner, the 51st score of the contest.

The Gaels came into the game buoyed by a stirring come-from-behind win against Ramor in the semi-final while Crosserlough had a bit to spare in their semi against Ballyhaise. Jimmy Higgins’s side lost the final of this competition to Gowna last year, having been well ahead at one stage, and were determined to make amends, with Dara McVeety in from the start on his full return.

A notable absentee for the Kilnaleck-based side was county full-forward Paddy Lynch, ruled out through injury, as was Paul O’Connor, goalscorer last time out, for the Gaels.

Crosserlough made light of the loss of Lynch as they raced out of the blocks. In the first 15 minutes, the 2020 county champions were devastating – Stephen Smith pulled the strings and McVeety terrorised the Gaels defence as the Lough raced into a 3-6 to 0-3 lead after 20 minutes.

The Gaels couldn’t handle the Crosserlough attack but, at the other end, Gearoid McKiernan, shadowed by Cian Boylan, was growing into the game and he dominated the second quarter, single-handedly dragging the Gaels back to within six at the interval.

Stephen and James Smith combined to set Darren Gaffney up for the opening point; from the resulting kick-out, McVeety intercepted and laid off for Pierce Smith to side-foot into the empty net.

Declan Meehan got Cavan Gaels off the mark with a free but Crosserlough were soon in for their second goal, Stephen Smith pinching a Gaels kick-out and Oran Rehill finding Brandon Boylan – and Boylan found the net.

Another from Gaffney, arriving late to hook over, was followed by a Pierce Smith free after McVeety was fouled. The same pair combined, with the same result, to make it 2-4 to 0-2 and when McVeety fisted over and then, from the kick-out, took a pass from James Smith and hit the top corner of the net, it was 3-5 to 0-1 with 14 minutes on the clock.

That, one would think, was that but the Gaels kept battling. Meehan got them going again with a point and McKiernan knocked over a free. Shane McManus and McKiernan (two, one free) registered before Brandon Boylan, who had a fine game, and McKiernan traded scores.

The former Swanlinbar player was like a one-man army at this stage. His team-mates were finding him with direct ball and he was nigh on unstoppable. He sent over a mark and then a free, which he won himself, and although Pierce Smith converted a free after McVeety was fouled, the last kick of the half saw McKiernan’s 40-metre effort spilled by the goalkeeper and end up in the net.

That made it 3-8 to 1-8 at half-time and the Gaels would win the second half by six to force extra time. A McKiernan mark and then a Pauric Sexton point got them going again. Stephen Smith and Jack Tully exchanged scores and then McVeety made space with a jink and James Smith hit the roof of the net with a rocket of a shot.

It was now 4-9 to 1-11 and when Mark Stuart put eight between the teams, it seemed Crosserlough would pull away again.

Not so. McKiernan – who else? - fielded brilliantly and rippled the net on the turn. Both sides registered as the pace grew frantic, Gaels sub Paul O’Connor with two.

Entering injury time, Crosserlough were five ahead but McKiernan wasn’t done yet. He knocked over a free, scored from play and then buried another goal, although there was more than a hint of a foul about this one.

At the other end, though, Crosserlough were awarded what was possibly a soft free and Pierce Smith sent over the equaliser.

Crosserlough started extra time brilliantly with a Mark Stuart penalty after Brandon Boylan was fouled but the Gaels came roaring back and it took an amazing Stephen Smith goal – a flick down and volleyed soccer nutmeg finish – to put daylight between them again.

With time almost up Cavan Gaels drew level again when sub Emmanual Shehu placed low to the bottom corner but in additional time, sub Emmett Boylan beat two players and boomed over the winner from 40 metres.

The Gaels had a chance to win it late on but Daniel Graham was wide from a 40-metre mark attempt which could just as easily have been given as a free.

The victory is Crosserlough’s first Senior League title since 1974.

Crosserlough: Thomas Byrd, John Cooke, Cian Boylan, Patrick O’Reilly, Mark Stuart (1-1, 1-0 pen), Conor Rehill, Peter Smith, James Smith (1-0), Darren Gaffney (0-2), Shane McManus (0-1), Stephen Smith (1-1), Oran Rehill, Dara McVeety (1-2), Pierce Smith (1-6, 6f), Brandon Boylan (1-2)

Subs: David Shalvey for McManus (temp, 43 mins), Adrian Smith (0-2, 1m) for O Rehill (47), Fionn Lovett for P Smith (50), Emmett Boylan (0-1) for D Gaffney (59), O Rehill for Gaffney (HT, ET)

Cavan Gaels: Ciaran Flynn, Kevin Meehan, Barry Fortune, John Fortune, Evan McIntyre, Niall Murray, Luke Fortune, Robert Maloney-Derham, Luke Molloy, Jack Tully (0-1), Evaan Fortune, Pauric Sexton (0-1), Declan Meehan (0-4, 3f), Keenan Donohoe, Gearoid McKiernan (3-14, 7f, 4m)

Subs: Paul O’Connor (0-3) for Sexton (38 mins), Paul Graham for Tully (54), Daniel Graham, Emmanuel Shehu (1-0) for McIntyre (6 mins, ET), D Sexton for E Fortune, Sean Johnston for D Meehan (both HT, ET)

Ref: Padraig Sheridan

Full report and reaction in this week's print edition.