BANTRY Blues’ ladies footballers are one win away from an All-Ireland title.
The Cork and Munster champions saw off the challenge of Derry and Ulster kingpins Steelstown in an All-Ireland ladies’ junior football semi-final in Bantry on Sunday to qualify for the club’s first-ever All-Ireland final.
Only four points separated the sides at the finish, Bantry not being sure of victory until the 63rd minute when Kate O’Brien split the posts, but in truth, the final scoreline was a total misrepresentation of Bantry’s superiority on the day.
‘It was very tough out there, even though the day was lovely and fine,’ player-of-the-match Emma Spillane said afterwards.
‘The pitch was soft and they were very physical but we had expected a tough battle. We were a bit worried in the first half when we had a lot of wides and we missed a penalty, too. But we were making the chances and working very hard. I thought we were very lively, a bit too quick for them.’
In contrast to recent weather, the day was ideal for football but the going was, understandably, heavy. The lighter Bantry girls seemed to make light work of the conditions, with ace forward Libby Coppinger and Myra O’Sullivan kicking over two good points but then the squadermania set in.
With Emma Spillane belying her young years at midfield, well-assisted by Jessica Coakley, and Coppinger, O’Sullivan and hard-working full forward Aoife O’Driscoll setting the pace up front, it seemed Bantry would open a big gap against the breeze but the shooting boots came off subsequently.
Strong corner backs Lea Casey and Aoife McGough, midfielder Orla Flanagan and strong forwards Emma Doherty, Megan Devine and Leah McCready were much to the fore for the visitors as they struck back for points from Doherty (free) and Beth Heaney to level (0-2 apiece) by the eighth minute.
Talented Libby Coppinger was proving a handful for the Derry defence and she kicked Bantry in front again. Then came the three goal chances that all got away midway through the first half. Sarah Coakley was at the end of a fine passing move but her shot went inches outside the post before Aoife O’Driscoll was fouled in the square in the 11th minute and wing back Mairead Dullea hit the spot-kick straight at the goalkeeper, who saved with her leg.
A minute later a high ball from Kate O’Brien was just touched to safety by goalkeeper Emma McCallion, who was to prove a major stumbling block to Bantry in the second half.
Allowed off the hook, Steelstown thundered back and when Emma Doherty pointed from play and a free, they were surprisingly in front, 0-4 to 0-3, by the 22nd minute and the Bantry mentors were looking a little worried.
To their credit, the Bantry team rallied before the break and points from O’Driscoll (free) and Emma Spillane had them back in front, 0-5 to 0-4, by the break.
‘At half time we just said we would drive on, keep working hard and try to take our scores,’ said Spillane.
‘We missed a few after half time but when they had two players sin-binned, it was a huge boost to us. Of course we still had to get the scores but we did open up a gap between us. However, we failed to kill them off and we should have been further ahead towards the end. We were under pressure near the end but, thank God, we got there.’
The second half started in similar fashion to the first, Bantry dominating but failing to put the ball between the posts. Disaster struck the Derry girls when they had two players – midfielder Aoife Laverty and corner forward Megan Devine, who had moved outfield and was beginning to make a big impression – sinbinned in the space of 90 seconds.
Bantry didn’t look a gift-horse in the mouth as they quickly kicked three good points from Aoife O’Driscoll (play and free) and Myra O’Sullivan to open up a four-point gap by the 40th minute.
However, Derry then began to employ the massed defence, often leaving only one player in attack, marked by three Bantry girls. Bantry found it extremely difficult to break through the defence despite some fine play from Aoife Crowley, Ann Coakley, Sarah Deane, Spillane, O’Brien, O’Sullivan, Coppinger and O’Driscoll.
The scoring dried up completely on the Bantry side, seven more wides being registered in the second half, and, back to normal numbers for the closing 15 minutes, Steelstown began to emerge from their defensive shell.
Devine and McCready led the way as Emma Doherty closed the gap to a dangerous three but an O’Driscoll free relieved the pressure. Back came the Derry girls to again close it to three with a superb point from Katy Holly in the 60th minute.
Nerves were really jangling now on the Bantry side as Steelstown went in search of an equalising goal but goalkeeper Séadhna O’Sullivan marshalled her defence well.
The referee played nine minutes over-time during which Bantry’s young sub Rachael Murphy was outstanding at wing forward, with Kathy McCarthy also doing well. There was huge relief all round when Kate O’Brien kicked a great point in the 68th minute to seal a victory that was greeted with delight by the Bantry players, mentors and supporters. It finished 0-10 to 0-6.
‘We’re in the final now,’ said a delighted Emma Spillane.
‘We did what we set out to do. We made it hard for ourselves but we will enjoy this and then start training for the final. Just one more hour to the title, we have to be happy with that.’
Bantry Blues: Aoife O’Driscoll 0-4 (2f), Libby Coppinger, Myra O’Sullivan 0-2 each, Emma Spillane, Kate O’Brien 0-1 each.
Steelstown: Emma Doherty 0-4 (2f), Beth Heaney, Katy Holly 0-1 each.
Bantry Blues: Séadhna O’Sullivan; Edel McGovern, Aoife Crowley, Doireann O’Shea; Mairead Dullea, Ann Coakley, Sarah Deane; Emma Spillane, Jessica Coakley; Niamh Crowley, Myra O’Sullivan, Kate O’Brien; Sarah Coakley, Aoife O’Driscoll, Libby Coppinger.
Subs used: Meabh Ní Shúilleabháin, Rachel Murphy, Kathy McCarthy, Eilish Harrington, Kathleen Casey, Laura O’Sullivan.
Steelstown: Emma McCallion; Lea Casey, Ruggin Doherty, Aoife McGough; Derbhla Wilson, Katie Nic Aindréis, Roisín Laverty; Aoife Laverty, Orla Flanagan; Enya Doherty, Lara Nic Aindréis, Emma Doherty; Beth Heaney, Leah McCready, Megan Devine.
Subs used: Katy Holly, Rachel Roberts, Ciara McGurk, Aoife McShane.
Referee: Jonathan Murphy (Carlow).