Monday 11 December 2017

Kickhams scale new heights

Ballymun win first Leinster title by beating Portlaoise

IN the book of sporting cliches, to have "one hand on the cup" is usually a precursor to looming, last-minute disaster. But they do things differently in Ballymun: they ended up with a cup possessed of just one good handle and no one, least of all Portlaoise, was about to take it off them.

It may take a steward's enquiry to discover how the 'bad' handle suddenly, and quite innocently, became disembodied as Ballymun players celebrated in Cusack Park. It was one of the few times that they looked in danger of letting the historic prize on offer slip through their fingers.

"Come on, come on, come on the Ballymun!" echoed through the Mullingar ether as the pride of north Dublin were crowned kings of Leinster for the first time in their history.

Thirty years ago, they had lost their only previous final appearance in the Leinster club senior football championship. That defeat came by Portlaoise, who duly went on to win their first (and still singular) All-Ireland title.

For three decades, Kickhams kicked their heels in frustration. For the last 27 years, they didn't even have a chance to put the record straight in Leinster.


Maybe that explains why they grabbed this year's rare opportunity with both hands.

As their rampaging midfielder, James McCarthy, surmised: "We've been knocking around Dublin the last few years and we couldn't make the step forward. Then, finally, once you get out of Dublin, we just refocused and said we'd give it a good crack because you don't know when you'll get a go at Leinster again."

There are, of course, several other reasons to explain how the Dublin SFC champions finished on the right end of yesterday's 0-11 to 0-8 scoreline.

Defence, not for the first time in this campaign, was their bedrock. They went through three rounds of Leinster without conceding a single green flag and this time they didn't even cough up a goal chance.

Defensive discipline manifested itself in other ways: it was the 45th minute before they conceded a free in the scoring zone (converted by Paul Cahillane) and while two more pointed frees followed in the home straight, Ballymun had built up sufficient scoreboard credit to absorb such hits.

At the other end we had another textbook lesson in the benefits of taking your chances, especially early doors. As in the county final and their previous two provincial outings, Ballymun built up a first-half head of steam that ultimately made all the difference.

Ironically, yesterday, they didn't score for almost 13 minutes while Portlaoise kicked a brilliant early point, via Brian McCormack, and then frittered away several openings during a period of relative territorial dominance.

Once the chances came, though, Ballymun revealed a more ruthless streak. Dean Rock had been denied an early goal by the razor-sharp Michael Nolan but then five unanswered Rock frees - stemming from a mixture of cheap, cynical and/or despairing fouls - propelled the Dubs four points clear.

Then Kevin Leahy landed their first from play before Cahir Healy - clearly frustrated by the failures of his attacking colleagues - burst through a couple of tackles to fist Portlaoise's second point, almost 29 minutes after their first. Thus, we broke for tea with the scoreboard reading 0-6 to 0-2.

Surprisingly given their greater experience, the Laois champions had been badly out of sorts, exemplified by the misfortunes of Hugh Coghlan.

Their only player with an All-Ireland club medal (from his time with St Vincent's in Dublin), the Tipp man was responsible for a succession of turnovers in the first 20 minutes although, to his credit, he eventually emerged from this trough.


Still, not enough Portlaoise players were on their game and even some radical half-time surgery (via positional switches and the emergence of Kevin Fitzpatrick) failed to reap immediate third-quarter returns.

Instead, Ballymun kicked three of the next four points to ease six clear. It could have been more: twice McCarthy ghosted through for goal chances only to be denied by 'keeper Michael Nolan.

Perhaps crucially, though, the same moves still culminated in points - for wandering centre-back Karl Connolly and then Ted Furman (who made some penetrating inroads either side of half-time).

When the excellent Jason Whelan capitalised on a Furman assist to leave it 0-9 to 0-3, a potential rout beckoned.

Belatedly, Portlaoise took the initiative and kicked five of the last seven points.

Healy was central to it all: Laois's premier man-marker had switched to centre-back for the second half and proceeded to fill the job of three men, that of defensive screen, barnstorming counter-attacker and even finisher, landing his second point to leave a goal between the sides after 56 minutes.

Perhaps the key phase, however, had come in the 10 preceding minutes.

The gap was also three points after 46 minutes but then Portlaoise kicked four wides on the spin - all from pressurised positions.

Who knows, even one inspiring score might have fully ignited the charge ... and yet you never got the sense that they would breach Ballymun's miserly defence.

We're not even sure Portlaoise believed it either: they kept trying to burrow through an overcrowded central channel and never once did they launch an aerial missile on top of Seán Currie's square, when only a goal could save them.

Even in defeat, Healy had compelling claims for 'Man of the Match' but this was Ballymun's day and while TG4 plumped for Whelan, our marginal choice was McCarthy.

Not that individual baubles will bother the first-time champions. This was no club final classic (hardly a surprise given the softish underfoot conditions) but that shouldn't detract from their supreme collective effort.

Next up, unless the Kerry and Munster champions run into a Tír Chonaill Gaels ambush next Sunday, will be Dr Crokes of Killarney.

Roll on February; bring on the Gooch ...

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