A good start may be half the battle but nothing beats a good finish and Manorhamilton produced both last Saturday in Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada to win their first Leitrim Senior Hurling Championship title in 53 years after an epic Final battle against Carrick-on-Shannon.
After one of the best County Finals in years, Manorhamilton displayed all the belief and determination of new champions as they surged into an eight point lead early in the first half and then withstood a fantastic fight-back from a Carrick-on-Shannon side desperate to regain the title they held for 12 uninterrupted years.
With Clement Cunniffe giving a display of free-taking, Manorhamilton looked as if they were breaking but in an admirable display of resolve and driven by Man of the Match Michael Poniard, the north Leitrim men finished by far the stronger to claim an epic and deserved victory.
Manorhamilton’s resolve and incredible work-rate got them off to their blistering start with seemingly every shot they took flying over the bar, the pace of Gary Hickey and Niall McLoughlin causing Carrick’s lack-lustre defence no end of problems.
In truth, Manorhamilton should have been well clear but with Carrick showing tremendous resolve and driven on by Vinny McDermott, Bernard Murray, James Glancy and of course, Cunniffe, Carrick ate away at the Manorhamilton lead and looked very much like the team who would go on to take victory.
As so often happens, games can turn on little incidents – with Carrick leading, Cunniffe missed a free and then got involved in an off-the-ball tussle with sub Dominic Kelly, barely seconds on the field. Whether Kelly was sent on with the intention of upsetting Cunniffe or just plain stopping him from dominating the contest, it worked as the Carrick man failed to score for the rest of the game and with that went Carrick’s scoring power.
Of course, just as important was the return of captain Gary Hickey to the fray just four minutes from the end. Hickey was seeing double after a blow on the head but he came back on to convert the free that levelled the scores and restored much needed impetus to a forward line that had faded badly frm the game.
Michael Poniard deservedly won the man of the match award for when the pressure was at its greatest, the centre-back was invariably at hand to make an interception, clear the ball and drive his team to victory, his strength and ability to read the game making a huge difference as Carrick put relentless pressure on them.
Not far behind was Niall McLoughlin, Steve Feeney and David Poniard – young McLoughlin was a real danger, his pace and eye for a score proving crucial as he scored the killer goal in the first half. Poniard, no more than his brother, was an immense presence with his work-rate and ball skills crucial in a tight contest.
Steve Feeney was immense at full-back as he continually thwarted a Carrick attack that never posed sufficient threat in front of goal and relied far too heavily on the accuracy of Clement Cunniffe.
With Carrick missing two early chances, Niall McLoughlin availed of good work from David Poniard to point with Cunniffe replying from a 60 metre free after another two missed chances. But with David Poniard firing over a lovely 50 yard point seconds later under fierce pressure, Manorhamilton laid two a marker.
A Gary Hickey free widened the gap and the north Leitrim men took complete control on nine minutes when Niall McLoughlin made a brilliant catch from a cross-field pass, turned his man and drilled a fabulous low shot to the bottom left hand corner of the net.
A vibrant Manorhamilton continued to prosper with great defence breaking down a Carrick attack before a long ball found Hickey for a great point. McLoughlin added a point with Cunniffe halting the flow of scores from a 15th minute free. But it was only temporary as Hickey put over another free and Sean McTiernan walloped a 65 yard effort over the bar on 18 minutes to put Manorhamilton 1-7 to 0-2 in front after 20 minutes.
But then Carrick started a slow but steady come-back – three Cunniffe points, two from frees, started the fight-back but it would never have got off the ground had keeper Gary Coone not made good saves from Kevin Clerkin before the north Leitrim men were awarded a penalty.
Michael Dolan’s long free broke with Gary Hickey bursting through two defenders and going down, referee John Sexton awarded a penalty from some 40 yards away. However, Hickey’s powerful shot was brilliantly parried by Coone, a fantastic save that kept Carrick in the game.
Both sides missed chances before the break as Manorhamilton led 1-7 to 0-5 at halftime but Carrick were on a roll – Cunniffe added three points in the first eight minutes when Declan Deegan scooped over the bar when a goal looked on the cards.
Kevin Clerkin had a half-chance of a goal but David Poniard swept over a point for Manor’s first score in 23 minutes but Carrick were still charging forward, another two Cunniffe points had the sides incredibly levelled by the 13th minute.
Even more incredibly, Cunniffe then pounced on a long clearance to put Carrick in the lead for the first time with 14 minutes remaining.
But Manorhamilton made a change, bringing on Dominic Kelly and the first thing the sub did was get involved in an off-the-ball scuffle with Clement Cunniffe as both were booked. Kelly didn’t allow Cunniffe the room to manoeuvre for the rest of the game as Manor gradually wrested a foot-hold back in the game as both Deegan and Paul McKiernan missed chances while Micheal Dolan was narrowly wide from long range.
Manorhamilton drew level when Gary Hickey, reintroduced just a minute earlier after he was seeing double before halftime, popped over a free to level the scores with less than three minutes to go.
Suddenly, Manorhamilton were rejuvenated and with a desperate block on a goal bound shot with seconds left in the game, David Poniard put the north Leitrim men back in front at time ran out. And to seal a remarkable victory, Micheal Dolan hammered a long range free over the bar over a minute into added time.
Val Cronin, Patrick Clancy, Steve Feeney, Patrick Clerkin, Seamus McTiernan, Michael Poniard, Patrick Loughlin, James O’Brien, Michael McKeon, Micheal Dolan (0-1), David Poniard (0-3), Sean McTiernan (0-1), Kevin Clerkin, Gary Hickey (0-4), Niall McLoughlin (1-2). Subs: Declan Ryan for Hickey (HT), Dominic Kelly for Sean McTiernan (47 mins), G. Hickey for K. Clerkin (56 mins).
Gary Coone, Tomas Glancy, Brian Keane, Donal Butler, Daithi Hughes, James Glancy, Danny Byrne, Gary McGovern, Vinny McDermott, Clement Cunniffe (0-11), Paul McKiernan, Breian Carroll, Alan Doherty, Bernard Murray, Declan Deegan (0-1). Subs: Conal Maguire for Hughes (35 mins).
Referee: John Sexton (Cork).