They said they were coming for the Fenagh Cup a year ago and last Sunday, Melvin Gaels lived up to the promise as they not only dethroned their great rivals Glencar/Manorhamilton but ended their dream of five Connacht Gold Leitrim Senior Championship titles in a row in devastating fashion last Sunday in Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada.
Goals from James Phelan and Jesse McGuinness were the exclamation points on a Melvin Gaels victory founded on an incredible work-ethic and a ravenous desire to bring the Fenagh Cup back to Kinlough, a victory far more convincing than the two goal cushion they enjoyed at the final whistle.
The wild celebrations at the final whistle reflected just what this victory meant to Melvin Gaels, scenes that were reminiscent of 1998 when the Kinlough men won their first Senior title after a gap of 33 years.
If winning the Fenagh Cup brought to an end a famine long over-due with the talent in the Melvin Gaels ranks, the added bonus of taking the title off their greatest rivals and denying them an unprecedented five-in-a-row only served to heighten their ecstasy.
The buzz-words of work-rate, intensity, desire and team ethic are almost coaching cliché now, trotted out by any victorious team in the aftermath of a big win. But as clichéd as the words have become, they don’t lose their validity as the one word that sprung to mind was hunger.
That hunger was obvious from the steely gaze and fierce concentration of the Melvin Gaels players in the team photographs to the almost manic desire to regain possession in each and every sector of the field; the insatiable work-rate and ferocity in the tackle.
Yet as dominant as the Gaels were throughout last Sunday’s Senior decider, they came close to losing this game as they were unable to translate their dominance into scores and an almighty effort from Glencar/Manorhamilton closed the gap to just a point five minutes into the second half.
The fact that the Manor men were within touching distance of an unprecedented five-in-a-row probably means there will be as much talk about the former champions failings as Melvin Gaels performance in winning the crown but that is the nature of sport rather than a slight on the Gaels.
As Melvin Gaels mentors and supporters pointed out privately themselves in recent weeks, Glencar/Manorhamilton haven’t been playing well this year and they haven’t reached the heights they have shown in the past.
Whether that was four hard years catching up with them or a lack of hunger is hard to tell but at one stage, Melvin Gaels were very worried as their neighbours hit three unanswered points in as many minutes to leave just a point between the teams just six minutes into the second half.
As manager Billy Gavigan pointed out, the match was never truly safe for Melvin Gaels until Jesse McGuinness bundled the ball across the line with seven minutes to go and one wonders what would have happened had Glencar/Manor managed to draw themselves level.
Instead, we saw Melvin Gaels’ resolve at its finest – Glencar/Manor had the momentum, Aaron Hickey and James Glancy were causing enormous problems but with Paul and Brendan Brennan and Fabian McMorrow standing firm, the Gaels defence held out.
Instead, it was the former champions who buckled first – two Gary Loughlin kick-outs were horrible mis-cues and if the Gaels failed to take advantage of the first chance, then Peter McGowan exacted a heavy price with a fine individual point that killed Manor’s surge stone dead.
That Melvin Gaels resolve was evident in the manner in which they responded to the awful loss of captain David McSharry in the first half – their captain was causing huge problems for the Manor defence when he dislocated his knee in the first half, a terrible injury that could see the veteran out of action for some time.
But instead of demoralising the Gaels, they hit back immediately with their first goal when Emlyn Mulligan’s free came off the post and James Phelan, in his first start of the campaign, crashed a great shot to the Manor net.
That score, more than anything, displayed the belief and resolve that Melvin Gaels brought to the final and probably in the final analysis, it was hunger that proved the difference – not a lack of it on the part of Glencar/Manorhamilton but a ravenous desire to take the title that propelled Melvin Gaels to the title.
Paul Brennan deservedly won the man of the match award after an award full of leadership and energy. When Melvin Gaels needed a move broken up or to get themselves moving, it was inevitably Brennan who got them moving, his presence lending the new champions with real authority.
In fairness, his brother Brendan wasn’t far behind and he seemed to single-handedly disrupt the Manor momentum in the middle of the field and his support play, seemingly everywhere on the field, was top class.
Fabian McMorrow too displayed his County credentials with a performance of real authority in the back-line even if James Glancy did give him moments of real worry. But McMorrow was a real steadying presence for a Kinlough defence that ensured that the vaunted Glencar/Manor attack never truly got going.
Upfront, the Gaels would have ordinarily crumbled had they lost David McSharry and star man Emlyn Mulligan had one of his quieter days as he did last Sunday. Mulligan started in blistering fashion but once Paddy Maguire switched on to him, his influence waned.
Yet with James Phelan causing a real problem at full-forward, instead of the full-back position where he won his first Senior championship medal in 1998, the Gaels were always an attacking presence and their style of play, similar to Donegal, was not so much dependent on the individual but with working the ball to the best placed colleague.
Subs Peter McGowan and Jesse McGuinness had big impacts but the lingering image is of the incredible work-rate and intensity the Kinlough attack brought to hassling and harrying the Manor defence at every opportunity.
The game ended in a flurry of off-the-ball shoving and pushing and a few punches and James Glancy was fortunate to escape without a red card after an off-the-ball clash but the incidents were all sympthoms of Glencar/Manor’s frustration and annoyance that they were losing their title to their great rivals.
The former champions will be hurt by the manner of their loss and if anything the sight of the Gaels celebrations will only serve to motivate them for what looks to be a rivalry that has the potential to dominate club football in the county for years to come.