NFL DIVISION TWO Laois1-15 Donegal 1-11: THERE WAS a moment at the end of this game when both teams suddenly looked to the sideline in unison, like soldiers at boot camp, awaiting further instruction.
Then, almost as suddenly, and again in unison, they could be seen breathing one obvious sigh of relief. Task over. At ease.
Someone got the word through, as quickly as that: both teams would be promoted to Division One anyway – given results elsewhere – and with that will meet again in the Division Two final in a fortnight’s time. It was just reward for both teams after a game played out in a fury of intent, although in terms of the victory Laois had truly earned it.
“That was a huge match, in terms of preparation for the championship,” said Laois manager Justin McNulty, “because that’s what the league is all about. But I think, yes, having got ourselves into the position we did earlier in the campaign, it would have been very disappointing were we not promoted.”
It was always going to be close at the top, and as expected it came down to a three-way tie, and thus points difference. On that basis Donegal still ended up marginally ahead of Laois, and so it was Derry – despite their convincing win over Antrim – who lost out, given their inferior points difference.
Not that Donegal manager Jim McGuinness was taking the defeat lightly. He kept his men in the dressing room for almost an hour afterwards, and presumably it wasn’t so they could iron their shirts.
Truth is they were chasing Laois for long periods, and were largely outplayed in all key areas, especially midfield. Pádraig Clancy and Brendan Quigley were orchestrating affairs with boldness and style, with McNulty afterwards describing Clancy’s enthusiasm as that of “an 18-year old”.
Defensively too Laois were thoroughly committed, with Denis Booth and Kevin Meaney making some wonderful blocks, while Mark Timmons, Darren Strong, and Peter O’Leary all burst forward for points.
What ultimately secured victory for Laois was the man-of-the-match display from MJ Tierney, who hit a virtually flawless 1-10 – even though all 10 points came from placed balls. That was Donegal’s undoing, in more ways than one; they definitely conceded too many frees, and yet weren’t helped by some overly sensitive refereeing from Martin Higgins.
Higgins in fact awarded 28 frees in the first half alone (we lost count after that) – and it certainly wasn’t a rough game. Instead two hugely physical teams, in the best meaning of those words, went at each other with respectful gusto, only to find themselves too often penalised for their efforts.
That’s taking nothing away from Tierney’s kicking. He hit seven frees from seven in the first half, each one as majestically placed as the other.
That was the difference in the opening 35 minutes, as Laois led 0-9 to 0-3 at the break. Donegal were slow out of the blocks with Michael Murphy limited to a mostly frustrating afternoon. Laois had the legs on them too, making the most of the summer-like conditions to frequently leave their markers trailing in the dust.
Donegal’s shooting was also poor, and they ended the first half with seven wides.
Ten minutes into the second half Tierney proved he’s more than just a place-kicker when he pounced on a pass from Ross Munnelly to rocket his shot inside the near post – and with that Laois were eight points clear.
Donegal were rocked but were handed a lifeline as Meaney lost concentration and handed possession to Michael Hegarty, who promptly lined up Dermot Molloy for the shot at goal. He didn’t disappoint. Rory Kavanagh added a second long-range point, and with that Donegal had reduced the gap to two, with 15 minutes to play.
Yet that was as close as they got. First, Michael Hegarty was dismissed for a second booking, and that further reduced their scoring threat, and once Timmons hit a crucial score for Laois, the right result was back on track.
“The work rate and effort and application of the whole team was encouraging,” added McNulty. “And promotion is another boost for the lads, definitely, in giving them further encouragement that they’re going the right way. I think the character of this team is showing, from number one to 32.
“We’ve still a lot of work to do, in terms of the perfect performance. But we’ll strive to get better with each. But championship is ultimately where we’re judged.”
One more date before that – a rematch of sorts for Donegal, perhaps.
LAOIS : O Culleton; D Booth, K Meaney, M Timmons (0-1); D Strong (0-1), S Julian, P O’Leary (0-1); P Clancy, B Quigley; C Begley (0-1), J O’Loughlin (0-1), N Donoher; R Munnelly, B Sheehan, MJ Tierney (1-10, nine frees, one 45). Subs : D Kingston for Sheehan (53 mins), P Cahillane for Munnelly (68 mins).
DONEGAL : P Durkan; F McGlynn, N McGee, A Thompson (0-1); M Boyle, K Cassidy, P McGrath; R Kavanagh (0-2), M McElhinney (0-2); M Hegarty, M McHugh, D Molloy (1-1); R Bradley, M Murphy (0-2), C McFadden (0-3, two frees). Subs : A Hanlon for McElhinney (60 mins).
Referee: M Higgins (Fermanagh).
IAN O’RIORDAN at O’Moore Park, Irish Times415