DUNEDIN Connollys went all the way against Donegal side Red Hughs in Letterkenny in their 30th anniversary year, as the giants of GAA in Scotland came unstuck after a creditable performance which showed all the drive and dedication which took them to the All-Ireland Junior Championship quarter-final.
Connollys arrived at O’Donnell Park with many reasons for confidence, but knew the task in front of them was a mammoth one. Just 15 seconds into the match the visitors knew they were in for a fight, as Peader McGlinchy surged through and knocked over a lovely score to give his side the lead.
Connollys have plenty class of their own, however, and it wasn’t long before Frank Molloy was on the scoresheet himself, with the veteran player-manager returning fire and drawing Connollys level.
It was to be a slow start from Connollys, however, as Red Hughs extended their lead, with a free from Damian Browne putting them back in front before Calvin Bradley scored another. The fourth of the match followed shortly after—again by Browne—and Connollys knew they would have to dig deep to restore themselves to parity in the game.
Aldo Matassa was the man to step up, and his score brought Connollys back to two behind, with scores after the opening flurry standing at 0-04 to 0-02 in favour of the Ulstermen.
If Connollys thought they had tamed the Donegal side, however, they were in for a shock. That shock came in the form of a goal by James Carlin. Goalkeeper Adam McKeever—the hero in Connollys’ last outing with a last-gasp penalty save—was uncharacteristically indecisive under a long ball, and unfortunately Carlin was in close proximity to send the ball into the net.
With the lead stretched Red Hughs looked like they were going to storm into the break with even more to show for the first period, but the staying power and determination of the Edinburgh side were again in evidence. Connollys pointed twice more, meaning at the break the scores stood at 1-05 to 0-04 and hope remained for the second half.
Red Hughs were again on the march from the first whistle, however, and stretched their lead again, with a frantic second half opening leaving the scores at 1-09 to 0-06. Six points behind and in the heat of battle against a very good side, Connollys would have been forgiven for allowing their heads to drop. On the contrary, however, adversity seemed to spur them on even more.
Sean Malee was the hero again as his side dug deep, maintaining a cool head under pressure to slot the ball beyond Ciaran Kelly and bring them back within three. The potent effect of Donegal star Stephen McMenamin was being neautralised in the centre of the field, and sensing a shift in momentum Connollys went for the jugular. Two more scores followed, as Connollys called on the services of veteran forward Alan Ward—who entered the fray at a decisive moment.
A leveller followed for Connollys, and just as it looked like extra-time was required Red Hughs popped over another to seemingly shatter Connollys’ dreams. The Edinburgh men are made of sterner stuff, though, and deep in injury time Sean Malee once against stayed composed as he slotted over a free to draw the match.
Red Hughs began extra time in familiar fashion —pushing into a one point lead—but Connollys suddenly found themselves in the driving seat with three scores without reply from Ward, Malee and Matassa. A goal from the county star McMenamin restored the lead for Red Hughs, but only until yet another leveller was scored by the visitors.
A goal by youngster Shane Gallagher was to eventually prove decisive, however. He poked home with just two minutes remaining to give his side a three point lead, and despite a a score by Ward bringing it back to two before a frantic scramble on the goal-line following a Malee free which was heading into the roof of the net, it was all over for Connollys.
It was 3-11 to 1-15 in favour of the Donegal men at the final whistle, and though Connollys knew they had given it their all, the unfamiliar and bitter taste of defeat left them to rue what might have been.
Speaking after the match Alan Ward summed up the feeling of disappointment in his camp. “The look on the players’ faces will tell you how disappointed everyone is after the way the team worked so hard to get themselves into a winning position,” he said. “We paid a heavy price for not making the most of our opportunities. It was not to be in our 30th year. Today’s set-back will make us even more determined to bounce back and complete a four-in-a-row of provincial titles next year.”
Red Hughs manager Seosamh Mac Ceallabhui paid tribute to Connollys as he spoke after the match, and suggested there was more relief than elation at the realisation they had squeaked past their opponents.
“That was the smartest team we played all year and they are very unfortunate to be going away here with nothing,” he said. “We are delighted, but I can’t say we are ecstatic because we played very poorly, but we got the job done. Connollys had our number over the field all day. We uglied it out and we were behind in a lot of sectors. We are just relieved; there is no excitement about that performance.”
Ciaran Kelly; Cathal Doherty, Eugene Browne, Ryan Kelly; Odhran Doherty (0-1), Gerard Melaugh, Thomas McMenamin; Peadar McGlinchey (0-3), Stephen McMenamin (1-0); Damien Browne (0-5;2f), Pauric McMenamin, Shane McGlinchey; Calvin Bradley (0-2) James Carlin (1-0) Gary Kelly. Subs: Johnny Carlin for Odhran Doherty (36), Shane Gallagher (1-0), for James Carlin (42), Sean Sweeney for Daman Browne, Damian Browne for Gerard Melaugh (62), Gary Kelly for Ryan Kelly (67), Gerard Melaugh for Gary Kelly (67), Michael Devine for Gerard Melaugh (81).
Adam McKeever; Fintan Kearney Daniel O’Brien (capt), Bryan Russell; Daniel Loftus, Conor Horan, Ronan McGurk; Brian McAteer, Tony Dever; Eanna Newton, Paul Reen (0-1), Conor McCann; Aldo Matassa (0-2), Frank Molloy (0-3), Sean Malee (1-4,3f). Subs: Brendan Parsons (0-2) for Eanna Newton (27 inj), Aaron Moore for Ronan McGurk (black card 36) Alan Ward (0-3;1f) for Paul Reen (57), Paul Reen for Conor Horan (74) Vincent Moriarty for Tony Dever (black card 81).
James Molloy (Galway)