Abbeyfeale United were crowned Premier Division Champions for the third time in four seasons when they turned in an exhilarating second-half performance to beat Rathkeale 3-0 in the title play-off in Clounreask on Friday night.
The scoreline is an accurate reflection of Abbeyfeale’s superiority on the night. After an evenly-contested first-half, they opened the scoring two minutes after the restart when centre-half Cormac Roche, up for a corner, met Thomas Sexton’s cross with a magnificent diving header.
One expected a response from Rathkeale but it wasn’t forthcoming, partly because of great pressing from Abbeyfeale, who grew in confidence from the goal and began playing some sparkling football. The Keane brothers combined for the Fealesiders to deservedly double their lead midway through the half. From just inside the opposition half, Michael showed good awareness to send the ball low to his brother Darren, who crowned an excellent performance on his part by taking a controlling touch and then drilling clinically inside the far post from an angled 20 yards.
There were no indications from Rathkeale that they were capable of cancelling out a two-goal deficit and that scenario became even more unlikely when their discipline broke down in the final ten minutes. First, they had a triple booking for arguing with referee Pat King, who controlled the game well, and then, even worse, Gary Enright, Man of the Match in the Desmond Cup Final, received a second yellow for dissent, which rules him out of Friday’s Premier Division League Cup Final between the two sides.
To loud cheers from the mostly Abbeyfeale-populated stand, Abbeyfeale put the icing on the cake with the third goal two minutes into injury-time. Four minutes after coming on as a substitute, Maurice O’Connor, who now shares the distinction with Billy Quirke, Joe Kelliher and Barry Sheehy of having won five Premier Division titles, squared for Pakie O’Connor to tap in from close range.
Such a comprehensive victory for Abbeyfeale looked unlikely during a close and hard-fought first-half. Both sides started without key players. Mikey Lyons, who had a great game in the centre of midfield for Rathkeale in the Desmond Cup Final, was ruled out because of an injury he picked up in the victory over Newcastle West Rovers the previous Sunday, while skipper Chris Smith only came on for Abbeyfeale in injury-time as a result of being injured against Glin Rovers.
Thomas Quilligan replaced Lyons and did a good job and it was surprising to see him substituted in the 72nd minute. As well as delivering many passes with his wand of a left foot, Quilligan’s corners from the right were of the highest order, one of which led to the first chance of the game in the 10th minute when the corner to the far post was headed by Keith Harnett and broke to Enright, whose 24-yard rocket took a deflection for another corner.
The first save of the match came at the other end six minutes later. Darren Keane’s cross broke to Fiachra Cotter, whose well-struck shot produced a tremendous save from Brendan Carmody, at the expense of a corner, from which Gavin Dillon’s in-swinger struck the far post. The end to end nature of the contest continued a couple of minutes later when Pa Ahern passed to his striking partner, Declan Nash, whose 28-yard shot brought a leg save from Billy Quirke.
Both teams were playing with intensity and the main reason that neither side was able to break the deadlock was because of the quality of defending. Abbeyfeale left-back Dillon gave a good example of this when he pounced to clear just as Nash was taking down a free-kick from Enright. However, the best defender on either team on the night was Abbeyfeale centre-back Roche, who was shrewd in his positioning, sure in his tackling, commanding in the air and precise in this passing.
Dillon can be very pleased with his performance on the night. He augmented his defensive duties with impressive counter-attacking and posted a few inviting crosses, such as on the half-hour when his delivery was helped on by Pakie O’Connor to Darren Keane, who didn’t connect properly.
Otherwise, though, Keane was a major thorn in Rathkeale’s side. His first touch was good, he was prepared to take on the full-back and his crosses were generally well-delivered, making him probably the second-best player on the pitch on the night.
For Rathkeale, Quilligan continued to perform impressively in the centre of midfield and one of his high-quality corners led to a Harnett header which Quirke did well to tip over the bar in the 36th minute.
There were a couple of signs towards the end of the first-half that anxiety was creeping into the Rathkeale team for some reason. An errant back-pass was almost punished in injury-time but Pakie O’Connor, under pressure from a defender, fired wide.
I mentioned earlier that Darren Keane was the second best player on the pitch. The best player was Roche, who crowned a Man of the Match performance when he put Abbeyfeale on the road to victory with his glorious diving header at the start of the second-half.
Falling behind in the Desmond Cup Final sparked Rathkeale into raising their game and going on to win. This time, there was no spark and Abbeyfeale were the better team in nearly every department for the remainder of the game. The Fealesiders were first to every ball, pressed quicker and passed better.
Every Abbeyfeale starting player was in credit in terms of their performance. Quirke did well in the little he was required to do, Michael Keane worked well alongside Roche, Sexton matched Dillon as an attacking full-back, outside-left TJ Lane was inventive and effective in his last game before departing for Australia later that night, Fiachra Cotter and Pakie O’Connor were busy and productive in the centre of midfield, Barry Sheehy bolstered midfield, both in terms of defence and attack, when he was dropped back from centre-forward in the 12th minute, his place up front taken by Jamie O’Connor, who proceeded to work tirelessly as the lone striker, not least in terms of applying pressure on goalkeeper and back four.
It was no surprise when Darren Keane doubled Abbeyfeale’s lead in the 67th minute, after which there was no way back for under-par Rathkeale, especially after Enright’s 84th minute dismissal, and O’Connor’s third goal just added to their misery.
Managers Alan Doyle and Seamus Giltenane will have to figure out quickly why their players lacked the drive that they showed in the Desmond Cup Final. Clearly, Lyons was a loss, both in terms of his own performance and the leadership that he offers, but one couldn’t fault his replacement, Quilligan.
After being presented with the trophy by Limerick Desmond League Vice-chairman, Mike Hanley, skipper Smith was wide-ranging in the number of people he thanked, including assistant manager, Tony Stout. One man has to stand out, though, in the list or credits and that is manager John Kelliher, who had just led Abbeyfeale to their third League title and the seventh trophy in all in the four seasons that he has been in charge. That’s a truly magnificent record and there could still be one more to come on Friday night.
Both Abbeyfeale and Rathkeale would have been worthy League winners, with an identical record of fourteen wins, three draws and just one defeat, Rathkeale losing to Abbeyfeale at home and Abbeyfeale losing to Ballingarry away. Both conceded just seven goals in 18 games, while Rathkeale’s tally of 58 goals scored was six more than Abbeyfeale. In many seasons, such stats would have been enough to win the title outright. However, when the playoff became necessary, one more challenge was presented and it was Abbeyfeale who proved capable of meeting it.
Abbeyfeale United: Billy Quirke, Thomas Sexton, Gavin Dillon, Cormac Roche, Michael Keane, Darren Keane, Fiachra Cotter, Pakie O’Connor, TJ Lane, Barry Sheehy, Jamie O’Connor. Subs: Joe Kelliher for Lane (65 mins), Martin Coughlan for J. O’Connor (84 mins), Maurice O’Connor for D. Keane (88 mins), Chris Smith for Cotter (90 mins).
Rathkeale: Brendan Carmody, Alan O’Shea, Darren Jones, Sean O’Shea, Eoin O’Donnell, Keith Harnett, Gary Enright, Thomas Quilligan, Jack Hennessy, Pa Ahern, Declan Nash. Subs: Davey Lyons for O’Donnell (63 mins), Mark O’Sullivan for Quilligan (72 mins), Mikey Morrissey, Mike Quilligan, Johnny Mooney, David Mooney.
Man of the Match: Cormac Roche (Abbeyfeale United).
Referee: Pat King
Assistant Referees: John Roche and Paul O’Brien.
Fourth Official: Liam O’Connor.
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