Second bite suits 'Castle
PERVERSE as it may seem, the footballers of Garrycastle are sure to have left Croke Park in slightly happier mood than their Crossmaglen rivals on Saturday evening.
This is despite leading from the second to the 49th minute, and again briefly by two points in the home straight. Despite twice enjoying five-point cushions, the Andy Merrigan Cup so close they could almost touch it. And despite the old maxim that you only get one chance to burn a red-hot favourite.
For all that -- and notwithstanding their exhilarating first-half performance crowned by Patrick Mulvihill's 21st-minute goal -- Garrycastle are fortunate on several fronts that Saturday's absorbing AIB All-Ireland club SFC final finished in parity.
For most of the second half they were swamped on their own kickout. The resultant pressure inevitably told as Crossmaglen twice drew level.
Then for the strange part: the reigning All-Ireland champions are renowned for their ruthless ability to close out a contest but here, with Garrycastle on the ropes, they panicked. After David McKenna's sublime curling equaliser, they had five more opportunities to win the match but Oisin McConville (twice), Jamie Clarke (with a fisted goal chance), 'Man of the Match' Tony Kernan and Clarke again (albeit from an almost impossible angle) all failed to find the target.
In mitigation, a majority of the above were half-chances and recycling possession looked the wiser option. "I guess Oisin or Jamie or Tony Kernan should have shown a wee bit more composure and tipped over a handy score or, if such a thing was possible, get a handy free," surmised manager Tony McEntee.
McEntee's displeasure at the erratic refereeing of Rory Hickey was spelled out more by what he didn't say. "Handy frees were hard to get, yeah," he concurred when asked to expand. Any other comment? "Not without suspensions following," he replied.
While Hickey dismissed a defender from either side for a second yellow (Tom McHugh of Garrycastle, followed three minutes later by Paul Kernan), most of the post-match debate centred on the red card that should have been.
Garrycastle's Paul Dillon can count himself blessed that his seventh-minute flashpoint with Brendan McKeown was greeted with yellow, not straight red, even if TV replays confirmed it was more "headpush" than headbutt.
"There was no contact whatsoever and really it was just a bit of play-acting, as I saw it," insisted Garrycastle boss Anthony Cunningham. Even if you weren't convinced by his manager's loyalty, Dillon will be free to play the replay as the incident was dealt with by Hickey and consequently cannot be revisited.
On the flip side, Crossmaglen will have their suspended skipper, Stephen Kernan, back for the rematch.
Which brings us to the first rule of replays: he who learns more from the original deadlock wins the sequel.
The clichéd consensus may be that Cross should belatedly make their favouritism count, given the memory of how they finished off Dr Crokes in the 2007 All-Ireland replay. And yet, once Garrycastle devour Saturday's DVD, they can learn a multitude. The starting points should be midfield and their own kickout.
The second-half stats show they won the first two Cathal Mullin restarts but incredibly, by our count, Crossmaglen won the next 12 (including one throw-up). Almost all of these were gathered via breaks, as Aaron Kernan and sub Francis Hanratty mopped up in the closing minutes.
The message for Garrycastle is obvious: they must vary their kickouts with a few short ones, and they need a more sustained contribution from David O'Shaughnessy, Seanie O'Donoghue and their 'carpet ball' colleagues.
Those with an ageist agenda may point to the match programme pen pictures and conclude that Garrycastle's venerable ranks ran out of steam against a more youthful Cross.
"When you have momentum, it always looks like you're fitter," McEntee demurred. "I think it would be unfair to say that Garrycastle were not fit at that stage or that their older legs were weak; we simply had momentum and we were driving forward and winning break ball."
Here's the key: Garrycastle have to snaffle more of those breaks and thus keep the supply lines open to Dessie Dolan (who, as per usual, excelled during Garrycastle's first-half pomp). Do that and the outsider will have as big a chance on day-two.
"The team that focusses more and learns most between the drawn match and the replay usually is the team that wins. And we hope that's us," Cunningham concluded.