Favourites to reach another Senior Hurling Championship Final, Manorhamilton were very close to a major shock last Saturday in Pairc Naomh Mhuire as a determined but limited Ballinamore came very close to dumping the north Leitrim men out of the championship.
On the balance of play, Manorhamilton were the better side and should have been much more convincing winners than they were, their stick-work and approach work marking them just that bit better than the Ballinamore men.
Yet had the Ballinamore men had any sort of penetration in the full-forward line to match the strong defensive work of their defence, a defence where Kevin O’Connor performed a heroic role at full-back when moved back there after injury to Denis Dolan, there might have been a shock.
The Ballinamore men relied too heavily on Shane Moran and Morgan Quinn for their scores, the two putting in a strong effort but the presence of the Poinard brothers in direct opposition negated much of the Ballinamore men’s work.
In truth, the Poniard brothers were the class acts on show last Saturday – Michael commanded his defence from centre-back with real presence, his range of passing and leadership marking him out as the game’s most influential performer.
David was just as important for the north Leitrim men, his driving runs resulting in many of the Manor scores while Gary Hickey’s leadership was a crucial factor.
Another factor in Manorhamilton’s victory was the fact that so many of their players got much needed experience during the year with the County set-up – Niall McLoughlin, Paddy Clerkin, Michael Dolan, Sean McTiernan all got vital time with the county team earlier in the year and it was very noticeable in their stick-work and increased confidence.
They now face a meeting with old rivals Carrick-on-Shannon next Saturday as they seek to win their first Hurling crown since their recent revival – last year’s defeat to Gortletteragh after extra-time and a replay will have stung but they will need to up their performance against a Carrick side that seem rejuvenated and have a scoring edge in Clement Cunniffe that Ballinamore lacked.
Manorhamilton got off to a perfect start, Gary Hickey’s shot being bundled home by Michael Dolan in the very first minute although they had Rossa O’Snodaigh to thank for a great save just two minutes later as Ballinamore threatened a goal.
Morgan Quinn saw a 65 held by Stephen Feeney while an Eamon Walsh shot was ruled wide by the referee after an umpire signalled a point. After another wide, Morgan Quinn showed nice poise to spin and fire over a 50 yard point on nine minutes.
Sean McWeeney was yellow carded for an off-the-ball clash but Ballinamore closed the gap when Shane Moran pointed after a quick free. Manorhamilton finally got their second score on 14 minutes when Gary Hickey converted a free and then took a great pass from Michael Poinard to score.
Now it was Manorhamilton’s turn to miss chances and two Quinn points, one from a free, narrowed the gap to a point but a great snap shot from Kevin Clerkin gave Manorhamilton a 1-3 to 0-4 halftime lead while sub Tommy McCormack was yellow carded for a wild pull on Michael Poniard.
Manorhamilton dominated the opening quarter of the second half but missed a succession of chances with Kevin Clerkin, Niall McLoughlin (2) & Gary Hickey (3) all hitting wides before Michael Dolan converted a 75 yard free to open up a three point gap.
O’Snodaigh made another good save from Shane Moran while a Gary Hickey free and a good Ruairi Sullivan save from Niall McLoughlin spoke of the increasing dominance of the north Leitrim men, dominance finally rewarded when Kevin Clerkin forced the ball home from close range after a Niall McLoughlin effort.
That score came with seven minutes to go and looked to have sealed the game but two minutes later, Cormac Sullivan forced the sliothar across the line after a 65 was not cleared. O’Snodaigh had a nervous moment when he swiped at an O’Sullivan cross as Ballinamore charged for an unlikely draw.
That looked even more dramatic when Sean McWeeney’s long range free cracked off the post in the first seconds of added time, Cormac Sullivan again on hand to put the sliothar in the net, leaving just a point between the teams.
However, any hope of more drama ended quite suddenly as referee Declan Hogan sounded the final whistle with just 38 seconds of added time played.
Rossa O’Snodaigh, Paddy Clancy, Steve Feeney, Paddy Clerkin, Paddy Loughlin, Michael Poinard, Seamus McTiernan, Michael McKeon, James O’Brien, Niall McLoughlin, David Poinard, Sean McTiernan, Gary Hickey (0-3), Michael Dolan (1-1), Kevin Clerkin (1-1). Subs: Val Cronin for K. Clerkin (58 mins).
Ruairí Ó Súilleabháin, Paul Earley, Denis Dolan, Joe Earley, Kevin Banks, Seán McWeeney, Liam Ferguson, Shane Moran (0-1), Paul McLoughlin, Kevin O’Connor, Morgan Quinn (0-3), Éamon Walsh, Cormac Ó Súilleabháin (2-0), Keith Boyle, Brendan Mulvey. Subs: Tommy McCormack for Dolan. Michael O’Dell for T. McCormack, Dan O’Brien for O’Dell.
Referee: Declan Hogan (Westmeath).