With the sun having set, it was the hum of the generator powering the floodlights that provided the backdrop to tonight’s Intermediate Championship final at MacHale Park. A tense title decider it was too but it produced a clear winner, with Balla upsetting the odds to emerge four-point victors over neighbours Kiltimagh and claim a historic first ever Intermediate Championship crown.
Pre-match favourites Kiltimagh – vying for a sixth IFC title and hoping to avoid defeat at the final hurdle for the third time in five years – got the scoreboard moving first tonight. Eoghan Lavin got the night’s opening score, stroking over a free into the Albany end.
Gary McHale, who would go on to put in a MOTM performance for the winners, responded soon after, shooting off his left under pressure to level it up. Kiltimagh then edged back in front, TJ Byrne winning the forward mark and firing over.
But that was the final time they’d lead in this contest. On seven minutes, Balla hit the front when Aaron Walsh claimed a high ball pumped in by Colm Murphy, drove forward and finished low to the net.
Seven more minutes would pass before the umpires were next troubled. This time it was Kiltimagh who scored, Cillian Finn claiming the forward mark and shooting smartly over.
Balla took a bit of momentum into the first water break. Donovan Cosgrave didn’t retreat quickly enough from a mark won by Balla and Colm Murphy thumped the resultant free over. Then Gary McHale went on a surging run that was ended when he was impeded by Conor Heneghan. Murphy again obliged from the free to ease the underdogs three clear.
An Eoghan Lavin free opened the second quarter scoring as he had done the first. But Balla were quick to hit back, the livewire McHale speeding forward and taking the right option to pop the ball over from the hands.
Jack Harte bagged the next score, one that would prove to be the final one of the half, despite the fact that five minutes of normal time were then followed by another four of injury time. That was a messy, unproductive spell for both teams, both of whom hit wides.
Those misses were now racking up, in particular for Kiltimagh who went in having shot seven first half wides. More pertinently, they headed for the stands trailing by four points after a half in which they’d failed to score at all from open play.
The caginess quotient increased further after the break. Daithi Lydon, falling as he shot, hooked over a point for Kiltimagh within a minute of the resumption but close to a further fifteen minutes would pass before the next score arrived.
That too came for Kiltimagh, Aidan Cosgrove finishing after a quick counter-attack initiated by a turnover up the field. Kiltimagh got the score after that one too, another Eoghan Lavin free, cutting the gap back to just one.
By now, Balla hadn’t scored for close on half an hour but, when they eventually did, Barry Duffy’s point felt like a breakthrough score. That feeling was compounded soon after when Gary McHale took a great fetch from a high crossfield pass, accelerated forward and calmly palmed the ball over the bar.
The same player then bagged his fourth from play, his lightning pace enabling him to burst clear of the cover before shooting over. That stretched Balla’s lead to four with four minutes of normal time to go. It was also the final score of the evening.
Kiltimagh attacked frantically as the game went into injury time. All they got for their efforts, though, was a higher wide count, which by the finish had risen to thirteen. That kind of wayward shooting was never going to win a low-scoring contest like tonight’s.
Balla were content to defend in numbers over those final minutes and break when the opportunity arose. Despite the fact that they were now on the cusp of a title success that would see them promoted to Senior status, they were as cool as you like in the closing stages and they finished the job with the minimum of fuss.
Soon enough, however, the enormity of what they’ve achieved will sink in for this hardworking and likeable team. Just two years ago they won the Junior title and now, with the Sweeney Cup in their possession, next year they get to mix it with the big boys at Senior level.
For every delighted winning team, though, there’s a disconsolate losing outfit. You’d need a heart of stone not to feel for Kiltimagh tonight – losing IFC finalists in both 2016 and 2017, they’ve once more come up short in an Intermediate decider. This one is likely to hurt even more than those earlier losses and understandably so.
But tonight belongs to Balla. They wouldn’t have been anyone’s favourites going into this campaign and they did well to stay under the radar all the way through. Tonight, though, they showed their mettle when it counted and got the reward they so richly deserved. Huge congrats to them.