After being neck and neck all season, it was little surprise that this Division 3 play-off to determine the champions turned out to be a close-fought thriller.
Gracefield took the honours thanks to a Robbie Knight hat-trick as his side twice came from behind to spark jubilant scenes in Mountmellick’s Conor Davis Park on Sunday morning.
CCFL Division 3A Play Off
It had all started so badly for the Offaly men as they found themselves a goal down inside the first three minutes. With a swirling wind behind him, Portlaoise striker Paul Lynch fired in a vicious free kick from the right wing that left Gracefield keeper Shane Broderick picking the ball out of his net from Portlaoise’s first attack on his goal.
Six minutes later however it was 1-1. Stephen Flanagan robbed Lynch of possession and Kieran McEvoy flicked Flanagan’s long ball perfectly into the path of Robbie Knight. The Gracefield frontman looked to have taken too much out of it but he assuredly slotted the ball over Gary Scully to equalise.
Both sides pressed forward in an end-to-end first half. Robbie Knight and Kieran McEvoy both narrowly missed the target for Gracefield while Portlaoise defender Philip Keogh had the ball in the net on the half hour mark only to have his effort ruled out for a foul. Two minutes later however, Portlaoise struck again.
Gary Scully’s wind-assisted goalkick floated right into the danger zone and when Richard Porter misjudged the flight of it, Portlaoise’s goalscorer Philip Lynch contested with Shane Broderick. The Gracefield keeper collided heavily with Lynch and referee Danny Farrell had no hesitation in awarding a penalty.
Broderick was given a yellow card and from the resulting spot-kick he will feel he should have done slightly better, but could only manage to palm Carl Connolly’s effort into the back of the net.
Again, Gracefield hit back. After the concession of the first goal they needed only six minutes to equalise, but they needed only half that this time round when they were awarded a penalty of their own three minutes after Portlaoise’s.
After a goalmouth scramble referee Farrell spotted a handball from Philip Keogh and up stepped Robbie Knight to drill a low shot past Gary Scully to make it two apiece at the break.
After a frantic opening forty five, it was perhaps inevitable that the second half would be played at a much slower pace. Gracefield now had the wind behind them and they were slightly on top but neither side looked like scoring until the game suddenly kicked back into action with twenty minutes to go.
Both sides had efforts cleared off the line before a raft of substitutions injected a new lease of life into proceedings. Gracefield sub Emmet Geoghegan nodded just wide at the back post after a nice cross from Robbie Knight, and with seven minutes remaining Gracefield hit what proved to the winner. Again it was from the spot after Danny Farrell dismissed Philip Keogh for his second hand-ball in the box, and just like before, Knight stepped up to hammer a shot high into the Portlaoise net to complete his hat-trick and hand the Division 3 title to Gracefield.
GRACEFIELD: Shane Broderick, David Cox, Stephen Flanagan, Richard Porter, Stephen Slattery, Lee Bryan (Eoghan Gleeson 37), James Flanagan, John Knight (Emmet Geoghegan 65), Tom Slevin, Robbie Knight, Kieran McEvoy (Tom Doyle 86).
PORTLAOISE B: Gary Scully, David Hughes, John Griffin, Philip Keogh, Mark Farrell, Barry Treacy, David Nevin (Tom Keane 88), Dan Dunne (James Houlihan 65), Paul Lynch, Krysztof Banet (Mick Sullivan 36), Carl Connolly.