Slaughneil 1-14 Austin Stacks 2-10
One kick of a ball was the winning and the losing of this one, a fiercely competitive clash in O’Moore Park that ultimately saw Slaughtneil of Derry – resilient to the death – claim a one-point win over Kerry champions Austin Stacks to guarantee another road trip and another chance to empty the townland of its inhabitants.
Why win easy when you can win the hard way with stories of heroes emerging from the shadows? On this occasion, Slaughtneil conceded two penalties in the space of three minutes midway through the first half to fall five points adrift. But if it felt to those watching on that this was the end of their journey, those on the field had other ideas.
One of those men was Barry McGuigan, a half-back who ventured so far into opposition territory that it was easier to keep on going. On and on he went, bringing Patsy Bradley and then Cormac O'Doherty into the play before receiving the ball, cracking an initial shot off the upright and then reacting quicker and better than anyone to get his left foot to the ball and to find the back of the net.
Just like that, Slaughtneil let it be known how badly they wanted this one.
Before that retort, it had seemed as if Austin Stacks had unlocked the answer to the great defensive conundrum concocted by the Derrymen in a campaign through Ulster where the opposition were routinely left the poorer.
Stacks boxed clever in the first 20 minutes, keeping the ball away from the big and powerful Slaughtneil midfield, and then taking the direct aerial route into Kieran Donaghy who proved more than a handful for his markers.
Twice in the space of three minutes, in the 13th and 16th minutes, high balls into Donaghy resulted in two penalty awards as he was grabbed and grappled to the ground: the first, taken by Pa McCarthy was saved by Antoin McMullan only for McCarthy to instinctively blast the rebound to the net. The second, again taken by McCarthy, was dispatched with aplomb to the top right corner. Stacks were 2-3 to 0-4 ahead and rocking to the beat of their acoustic army of fans in the packed stands.
But there the daylight between the sides was at its widest. After that, Slaughtneil – who benefited from a sizable free count in their favour in the first-half, 14 to four (plus two penalties) – chipped away to slowly but surely close the gap.
Two points from Christopher Bradley, another from Pádraig Kelly and then McGuigan's goal turned the game on its head. It took an injury-time point from Stacks' Shane Carroll, who had an impressive game, to draw matters level – 2-5 to 1-8 – at the break.
At the sound of the half-time whistle, Slaughtneil’s players stayed on the pitch rather than race back to the dressing room.
"He told us to keep our composure and not to get overexcited," was how McGuigan explained the message imparted to his team by manager Mickey Moran during the interval.
“He’d a quiet word with us, told us to keep doing what we are doing, knocking off the scores, and that our spirit will get us through.”
But there was spirit and character on both sides and, despite playing into a stiff breeze fuelled by occasional rain showers, Austin Stacks weren't going anywhere without a fight of their own. Carroll chipped over a pointed free, Donaghy responded to a Paul Bradley point by looping over a high ball to reclaim the lead and then Greg Horan rampaged forward for a point. This was a game that was always going to the wire.
And so it did.
And Stacks will probably look back on the little things to their cost. A Shane O'Callaghan effort that clipped the wrong side of the upright. A Carroll free, from 25 metres, that was caught by the wind and drifted wide. Little things with big outcomes. As it was, a finely taken O'Doherty point – after a move that involved that man McGuigan, who'd left his brother's wedding in Donegal on Saturday night to drive down to the team hotel and arrive in the wee hours of the morning – proved to be the difference and the winning of the game.
"When you lose, you lose with humility and you lose with a bit of dignity. The team that wins, deserves to win, that's my view. They were marginally better than us; it is not easy but you have to accept it," said Austin Stacks manager Stephen Stack on the end of his team's journey. For Slaughtneil, one final road trip awaits.
SLAUGHTNEIL: A McMullan; F McEldowney, B Rodgers, K McKaigue; C Cassidy, C McKaigue (0-1), B McGuigan (1-1); Patsy Bradley (0-1), P McGuigan; P Kelly (0-1), C Bradley (0-3), R Bradley; G Bradley (0-2), Paul Bradley (0-4, frees), C O'Doherty (0-1). Subs: S McGuigan for G Bradley (52 mins), P Cassidy for C Bradley (61 mins)
AUSTIN STACKS: D O'Brien; F MacNamara, B Shanahan, R Shanahan; P McCarthy (2-1, one penalty), C Jordan, D McElligott; W Guthrie, G Horan (0-1); M Collins, S Carroll (0-4, three frees), D Bohan; D Mannix (0-2, one free), K Donaghy (0-1), S O'Callaghan (0-1). Subs: Darragh O'Brien for Collins (half-time), W Kirby for Bohan (38 mins).
Referee: D Gough (Meath).