The Flanagan Cup will remain in Garrycastle for another year, after Anthony Cunningham's charges retained their Westmeath senior football title with a deserved four-point win over a disappointing Mullingar Shamrocks outfit in a very poor-standard county final at Cusack Park last Sunday afternoon.
A reflection of the ragged nature of the contest as a whole can be gauged by the post-match talk among many sections of the 2,700 crowd present of it being the worst county final in memory. This is compounded by the fact that last Sunday produced ideal conditions for football, despite the recent vagaries in the weather.
The atmosphere in the stand and on the terraces was often muted and, in truth, Shamrocks never really looked like they had the self-belief to bridge a ten-year gap and regain the Flanagan Cup. This, despite an absolute gem of a goal from team manager Ray Smyth's son, Lorcan, in the sixth minute - a solo score which has seldom, if ever, been surpassed at Westmeath GAA headquarters.
However, it was the two Garrycastle goals which effectively sealed the winners' fifth title in ten years. Paddy Mulvihill and Des Dolan combined delightfully to set up the latter's cousin, overlapping corner-back James Dolan, to fire home a great goal in the 22nd minute, helping the champions to a half-time lead of 1-6 to 1-2.
The game's undoubted turning point came in the eighth minute of the second half when, moments after Cian O'Leary pointed for the Mullingar men when a goal looked on the cards, Rory McGowan teed up Paul Dillon for a splendid goal. Despite the best efforts of Simon Quinn, in particular, in the losers' attack, Garrycastle never looked likely to be dethroned in the closing stages, with the wily Des Dolan using all his craft and experience to pull the strings throughout the pitch.
In a break with tradition, Mullingar Town Band was conspicuous by its absence, with the Ravens Marching Showband providing the musical accompaniment for Denise Fulham as she sang the pre-match National Anthem. Wind-assisted Garrycastle, who were forced to replace flu-victim Justin McAteer with Aidan Browne at centrefield, were straight out of the traps and Rory McGowan put them ahead after a mere 15 seconds with a well-taken point from 30 metres, into the scoreboard end of the ground. Within a minute, Des Dolan was narrowly wide before Fiachra Spellman shot a bad wide at the other end. Directly from the kick-out, Des Dolan set up David O'Shaughnessy and the 2004 Delaney Cup recipient kicked a rare point, with aplomb. Ciaran Curley was just off target for the challengers - perhaps caught in two minds as to whether you go for a goal or be satisfied with what would have a valuable point.
At this stage the game was quite entertaining and the end-to-end nature of the exchanges soon saw Philip Shaw smother Mark McCallon's goalbound effort from close range. There followed a score of real beauty and class. Lorcan Smyth collected the ball in his own half and soloed all the way to within 15 metres of the Garrycastle goal before unleashing an unstoppable shot past Cathal Mullin to the roof of the net, to edge the challengers a point ahead.
Philip Shaw was unconvincing but, nonetheless, the Mullingar custodian still kept out Paddy Mulvihill's attempt at an immediate Garrycastle riposte. Simon Quinn, who was particularly prominent throughout for the losers, superbly curled over a difficult free for the green and whites and the same player followed up with another point, this time from a routine free, to put Shamrocks a goal to the good (1-2 to 0-2) in the 11th minute.
A quickly-taken free by Des Dolan enabled team captain Doran Harte to get on the scoresheet with a fine shot from 35 metres. Both goalkeepers were soon called into action, with Cathal Mullin's clearance from Simon Quinn being quite unorthodox, as Fiachra Spellman threatened. In a near-repeat of an earlier incident, Philip Shaw smothered Mark McCallon's effort as the holders came more and more into the game. Shamrocks' Darragh Daly was off target from a good opportunity after a period of scrappy play. Des Dolan levelled the match with a brace of routine frees in the 19th and 20th minutes, before the green and reds took a lead they never looked likely to relinquish, with Paddy Mulvihill (who has had a fine campaign this summer) and Des Dolan combining for James Dolan to fire low to the net, with Philip Shaw never moving as the ball flew past him.
Shaw just managed to keep out Conor Cosgrove's shot in the winners' next attack, before Lorcan Smyth and Cosgrove both missed scoreable left-footed frees. Referee Damien Maher, who had a fine county final debut, signalled two minutes of added-time and Garrycastle edged further ahead during this time when Des Dolan's 35-metre free went over via the upright. The same player had less luck with a shot from open play in the last action of the first moiety, the ball coming back into play via the woodwork. This left the scoreboard at half-time reading: Garrycastle 1-6 Mullingar Shamrocks 1-2.
After outstanding interval entertainment from Scór na n"g All-Ireland winners, Moate All-Whites Ballad Group, play was quite ragged in the early stages of the second half before Cian O'Leary (renowned as a goalpoacher) shot over rather than under Cathal Mullin's crossbar when a goal beckoned, after Lorcan Smyth's shot came back off the upright. This was Shamrocks' first score in a whopping 29 minutes and their paucity of scores was soon highlighted even more when Garrycastle struck for their second goal, Rory McGowan teeing up ultra-consistent full-forward Paul Dillon for a terrific finish from 20 metres to put the winners ahead by double-scores (2-6 to 1-3).
A patient Mullingar build-up ended with Simon Quinn pointing neatly. However, a loose pass by the latter player then precipitated a flowing Garrycastle move which ended with a typically-classy point from Des Dolan (who must surely have run his cousin James very close in the formal vote for 'Man of the Match').
The champions were now dominant in and around the midfield area and substitute Alan Daly got on the scoresheet as the midpoint of the second moiety approached, with a lovely left-footed shot. Darragh Daly was bundled off the ball near the Garrycastle goalmouth and Cian O'Leary's toe-poked effort was deflected out for a '45', which was kicked short of the target by Philip Shaw.
Three points in as many minutes gave Shamrocks' supporters hope - substitute Denis Corroon finding the range in style and Simon Quinn following up with a brace, the first a fine score from play and the second from a free on the 45-metre line. An attempt to blast home a goal by Darragh Daly was deflected for another '45, but again Philip Shaw was unable to get the distance, despite the aid of the wind. Aidan Browne set up Alan Daly for his second point to wrap up Garrycastle scoring, with a minute of normal time remaining.
Des Dolan was now seen to good effect helping out his defence. Three minutes of additional time were signalled and in the dying seconds, Simon Quinn's rasping shot flew just over the Garrycastle crossbar. Moments later, a delighted Doran Harte was presented with the Flanagan Cup by Westmeath County Board chairman, Tom Farrell.
Garrycastle now face Longford Slashers in the first round of this year's Leinster club championship in Cusack Park on October 24. While this is a real 'banana skin' for the green and reds, there remains real hope in the county that Anthony Cunningham's troops - who have genuine strength-in-depth in most positions - can go one better than last year and break Westmeath's duck in the blue riband of provincial club football, come December 5.
GARRYCASTLE: Cathal Mullin; James Dolan (1-0), John Gaffey, Alan Fox; Mark McCallon, Karl Henson, Doran Harte (capt) (0-1); Seanie O'Donoghue, Aidan Browne; David O'Shaughnessy (0-1), Des Dolan (0-4, 3 frees), Rory McGowan (0-1); Conor Cosgrove, Paul Dillon (1-0), Paddy Mulvihill. Subs: Alan Daly (0-2) for Cosgrove (h-t), Shane Mulvihill for McGowan (51 mins), James Duignan for Henson (52), Enda Mulvihill for Fox (54), Donovan Hermbusche for O'Donoghue (60 +1).
MULLINGAR SHAMROCKS: Philip Shaw; Eddie Moore, Aaron Purcell, Mark Irwin; Micheál Curley, Donal O'Donoghue, Aonghus Smyth; Garrett Doyle, Darragh Daly; Anthony Clinton (capt), Lorcan Smyth (1-0), Simon Quinn (0-6, 3 frees); Fiachra Spellman, Ciaran Curley, Cian O'Leary (0-1). Subs: Denis Corroon (0-1) for Spellman (inj, 26 mins), Kieran Gavin for Doyle (40), Adam Corroon for O'Donoghue (inj, 45), Darren Moore for O'Leary (59).
REFEREE: Damien Maher (Ballynacargy).