'The Town' go marching on
Portlaoise into Leinster decider after battling past Moorefield
THEY'RE the perennial rulers of Laois, but they've only landed one Leinster title in the last six attempts. That explains why some folk have denigrated Portlaoise as provincial under-achievers since their seven in-a-row O'Moore county run started back in 2007.
But over the past eight days, they've revealed plenty to disprove the sceptics. Last Sunday, eights points down and staring into the abyss, they recovered to defeat Longford Slashers in extra-time.
Yesterday, albeit in less spectacular fashion, they completed another gutsy comeback to deservedly account for Kildare rivals Moorefield in a low-scoring and often tetchy battle of attrition.
"Oh when 'The Town' go marching in!" echoed the main stand in O'Moore Park soon after Paul Cahillane had arced over an injury-time insurance point to leave the hosts 1-9 to 0-8 ahead.
That's how it finished, setting up an intriguing AIB Leinster Club SFC final date with St Vincent's. The game is fixed for Tullamore on Sunday week (throw-in 2.0), with Portlaoise hoping to atone for last year's provincial final defeat to another Dublin standard-bearer, Ballymun.
"After last week, it was a quick turnaround, but these teammates of mine have unbelievable courage and guts," proclaimed skipper Brian McCormack, whose 33rd-minute goal proved the watershed score, turning a two-point deficit into a lead that Portlaoise would never relinquish.
Joint-manager Mick Lillis pinpointed their previous fightback in Longford as arguably a turning point in this campaign.
"We dug out that and we found something in ourselves after last weekend that maybe we had forgotten," Lillis suggested. "We found an ability to graft hard and work hard – we rediscovered that a bit last week and it was great to see it. We carried it along in that second half today."
Just as well, too, because their prospects of December football looked shaky at the midpoint, trailing 0-6 to 0-4, as an early three-point cushion was frittered away through a combination of Moorefield's growing midfield dominance and Portlaoise's predilection for fouling in the scoring zone.
The visitors hadn't scored a single point from play – and wouldn't do so until the 53rd minute through substitute Keith Duane – but six flawless frees, equally shared between Adam Tyrrell's citeog and Ronan Sweeney's right boot, had left Portlaoise in a pickle. "We were a bit naive, giving away silly frees in front of goal," McCormack admitted.
Tensions, already simmering late in that half, had boiled to the surface as both teams headed for the dressing-rooms. A brief row kicked off, ending with Portlaoise's Craig Rogers on the turf receiving treatment.
"There was a very late tackle after the final whistle was blown on one of our players," claimed Lillis.
"Our lads didn't like it and rightly so – it shouldn't have happened. We won't name names anyhow."
Earlier in the half, Lillis himself had appeared to get embroiled in some verbals with Daryl Flynn after the Moorefield midfielder had won a free.
While he didn't see what happened to Rogers, the Portlaoise mentor conceded: "There was an awful lot at stake – semi-finals are for winning and no one cares about performance. You just want to win and it's a battlefield out there. The football is nearly secondary."
Once second half battle resumed, it was Portlaoise who upped the ante as Moorefield visibly lost their way.
The crucial moment came when the previously impressive Kevin Murnaghan, coming out of defence, saw his hand-pass intercepted by Cahillane. The Portlaoise forward was suddenly through on goal and selflessly offloaded for his veteran captain to insert the dagger.
"A goal in this sort of tight match is always gong to be crucial," lamented Moorefield manager Luke Dempsey.
"From then on, they had the initiative. Brian McCormack and Cahillane did an awful lot of harm, while Cahir Healy was dominant at full-back. Their backs tightened up a lot. We got two points in the second half and that's not going to get you to a Leinster final."
Portlaoise could have helped themselves to another hat-trick of goals, but the unmarked Cahillane got bottled up prior to McCormack's strike, was subsequently denied by the post, and then (in trying to engineer another tap-in) passed behind Brian Smith.
"We're saving those for the next day!" Lillis quipped. Thus, Moorefield stayed within touching distance but six scattergun second-half wides coupled with some tenacious but more disciplined Portlaoise defence (Healy, as ever, leading the resistance) crippled them.
Next up, St Vincent's. "Diarmuid Connolly is probably one of the best footballers in Ireland at the minute. We know we're underdogs," McCormack cautioned.
Two weeks out, and the mind games have already begun.