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23 February 2006 Edition

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The Matt Treacy Column

Ardfert fans are jubilant after winning the Junior All Ireland final

Ardfert fans are jubilant after winning the Junior All Ireland final

Team of miracles conjures magic in Croker

I referred to Paddy Kavanagh last week and his connection to the Inniskeen club who contested last Sunday's All-Ireland Intermediate football final. Apart from his contribution as a player, which was far more extensive and important than the funny stories told about him, Kavanagh was fully aware of the importance of the games. On one occasion he declared that: "No man can adequately describe Irish life who ignores the Gaelic Athletic Association."

I am certain that had he been among the more than 6,000 people in Croke Park he would have noticed many changes. How many I wonder any longer have that same almost spiritual relationship with the land and hedgerows described by Kavanagh. But hearing and seeing the passion in the voices and faces of his South Monaghan neighbours, and of the Kerry and Galway people there, I doubt he would have any reason to revise his opinion.

The first match on Sunday was the Junior All-Ireland Final between Ardfert and Loughrea. According to some sources, Ardfert, Ard Fhearta, means "the hill of miracles". Certainly after their last three displays they have earned the right to be known as the team of miracles. Seemingly on the verge of defeat on all three occasions they conjured up some piece of magic to save the day.

In the Munster Final it was Dermot Dineen's save from a penalty against Erin's Own; in the semi-final against Monaghan Harps it was Johnny Egan's goal in the dying seconds, and on Sunday it was the collective will of the team not to let go even though they appeared for much of the game to be on the back foot against a Loughrea team that had considerable power and in David Tierney an almost unerring point scorer from placed balls.

Scores were hard to come by thanks to resolute defence from both sides and throughout the entire hour just five scores came from play; Stephen Wallace's goal and Brendan O'Flaherty's point for the Kerrymen and one point apiece from Loughrea's Tierney, Johnny O'Loughlin and Johnny Maher. David Tierney added six points from frees while Ardfert's Stephen Wallace kicked a similar number for his side.

The high free count might appear to indicate a foul ridden encounter. Meath referee Cormac Reilly was strict but the robustness of the challenges rarely involved anything untoward. Despite the brilliantly taken goal by Wallace in the first half after Ardfert had opened up the Galway defence, Loughrea led at the break and appeared to be the more dangerous looking.

Ardfert seemed to struggle slightly with Croker's wide spaces but addressed that problem after the restart when playing a more direct game which placed pressure on the Loughrea defence and prevented them supplying the same sort of service to their forwards as they had in the first half.

Gradually establishing a territorial dominance through their superior work rate, Ardfert might have scored two or three goals especially once John Egan began to gain in confidence on the right wing, and substitute Francis Wallace began to find space in the corner. But it still went to the wire and it was Stephen Wallace who kicked the decisive score from a free about 30 yards out near the Cusack sideline.

Shane Griffin made the acceptance speech in which he managed to name almost every inhabitant of Ardfert going back to Saint Brendan the Navigator of the same parish. A great end to what is becoming one of the most interesting competitions in the calender and which, as Seán Kelly said in the programme, may well become: "The best day of the year to be in Croke Park."

The other part of the day was the Intermediate Final between Caherlistrane and Inniskeen Grattans. It was game that appeared to be following the same pattern as the Junior Final with a physically more imposing Galway team establishing an early dominance that seemed to provide them with a platform for victory until the last quarter.

In fairness to Inniskeen they epitomised tenaciousness and their ferocious tackling from their full forward line back made it increasingly difficult for Caherlistrane to move the ball into the scoring zone. In contrast the Monaghan men enjoyed the lion's share of possession in the second half and picked off some wonderful scores, particularly the last point from Niall Lennon and a goal by Ronan Meegan.

After that it was nice to escape out of the biting breeze into the luxury of the bar in the Premier Section, as you do, and contemplate on the events of the day. And on the amazing transformation that has come upon the association since the days when people got changed in ditches and the 'gah' was about as popular with the bien pensants as a shop steward representing one of their Filipino maids.

As Phil said, rugby always had money while the GAA had to struggle to acquire pitches and build dressing rooms when the rural and working-class communities that are its backbone had nothing. Now we have something that they want, and which it will bring no benefit to us to let them have. Apart from that there is the growing belief that the "temporary little arrangement" will become permanent as doubts increase that Lansdowne will even be given planning permission. Fool us once, as the saying goes.

Back to the playing fields. It was a good weekend for Antrim. The hurlers had a great win over Galway and St Gall's once again defied the odds and awarded their backers with a victory over Nemo Rangers in the All-Ireland Senior Club semi-final. They will meet Salthill-Knocknacarra in the final after the Galway side overcame the other favourites to reach the final, Kilmacud Crokes.

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