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Slaughtneil: New kings of Ulster

Slaughtneil wear provincial crown for first time after late, late drama

By John Campbell

Even the most fervent GAA romantic would have encountered difficulty in scripting the gripping narrative that brought the curtain down on the Ulster club football championship in such spectacular style at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh yesterday.

In a match that embraced the full spectrum of the sport's virtues, it was the core element of lion-hearted spirit that ultimately saw the name of Slaughtneil inscribed on the Seamus McFerran Cup for the first time.

Forced onto the back foot for the first half, the Derry champions summoned unparalleled reserves of energy, spirit and belief after the break that saw them scale a new summit in what has been the most memorable year in the club's history.

On a day when Slaughtneil's pride proved a raging force, the status of the provincial competition was even further enhanced through a contest that totally captivated the enthralled 9,230 gallery - and, almost incredibly, produced just one booking.

Even when the force appeared to be with the Tyrone champions, Slaughtneil came surging back with their familiar, stoic fury - a team imbued with seemingly boundless drive and towering ambition.

In the end, it was a fairytale point from Christopher Bradley deep in the bowels of added time that eased them over the line.

In a team of heroes, the midfield duo of Paudie McGuigan and Patsy Bradley undertook the kind of spadework from which forwards invariably benefit, Chrissy McKaigue was the glue that held the defence together and skipper Francis McEldowney provided inspirational leadership when it was most needed.

If they allowed Omagh freedom and licence to thrill on occasions in the first half, then Slaughtneil by and large erected the shutters after the break, virtually owning the ball in the middle third of the park and subduing their opponents' efforts to unleash any real degree of creativity.

Yet in exploding into action after just 47 seconds when McGuigan's long, hopeful punt from midfield found the welcoming arms of 18-year-old Cormac O'Doherty who hammered home a spectacular goal with many of the spectators still settling into their seats, Slaughtneil provided something of a false dawn.

While it was an early fillip for the Derry champions, it nonetheless served as a sharp reminder to Omagh of the enormity of the task they faced.

And Larry Strain's side lost no time in responding.

A brace of points from Conor O'Donnell followed by another from the impressive Aaron Grugan left St Enda's just one point adrift, Chris Bradley having complemented O'Doherty's early strike with a point.

And with Joe McMahon at the heart of most of their moves, Jason McAnulla tracking back to bolster the middle and Conan Grugan displaying a sharp work ethic, the Omagh side slipped into gear.

It paid dividends, too, when skipper Hugh Gallagher and then the ubiquitous McMahon fired over points after Gerald Bradley had hit the target for Mickey Moran's team.

With the half-time whistle imminent, Omagh struck a telling blow when Barry Tierney roared onto Aaron Grugan's subtle off-load and thundered in a classic goal that sent his side in at the break 1-5 to 1-2.

When Tierney popped over a point in the opening seconds of the second half, it seemed as if the trophy was destined for Tyrone's county town.

But it was then that Slaughtneil exerted considerable muscle in the engine-room, chiefly through old war-horse Patsy Bradley.

The lines of communication between defence and attack suddenly became more clearly defined and when Barry McGuigan, O'Doherty and Ronan Bradley pocketed points between the 32nd and 37th minutes, Slaughtneil acquired a more confident demeanour.

Yet the Red Hand representatives still held sway at 1-6 to 1-5 and then regained their solid footing in the contest when Ronan O'Neill and Cormac O'Neill swooped for points.

But St Enda's were to score just once more - a Ronan O'Neill point from a free in the 56th minute - as Slaughtneil swarmed in persuasive packs.

When Paul Bradley converted a 44th minute free, this heralded a Slaughtneil renaissance that will in time become the stuff of folklore.

His namesake Christopher took a leaf from his book by landing a similar score a minute later and when the ever-dangerous O'Doherty bisected the posts again, stalemate ensued at 1-9 each.

O'Neill's late point formed a fleeting vision that his team might extend their championship into extra-time but when Christopher Bradley took aim from all of 40 metres in the second minute of injury-time, the collective intake of breath in the stadium was audible.

His splendid effort sailed between the posts - and Slaughtneil were duly propelled into a sporting paradise.

Belfast Telegraph

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