The bookmaking offices in South Offaly reported a steady flow of money for the underdogs in the run up to this opening round championship fixture at Lusmagh, but the pre-match odds of 6/1 about a Belmont win were more than justified when the teams took the field and Birr completely outplayed their opponents on Sunday evening.
The absence of players like Gary Hanniffy, Brian Nolan, Neil Rogers and Rory Hanniffy led many observers to believe that Birr were vulnerable in this fixture but Donal Franks got great performances from some of his younger hurlers, while more senior players like Paul Cleary, Barry Whelahan and Seán Ryan all put in big performances to help their club dominate proceedings around the middle of the field.
As was the case in most games played last Sunday, use of the wind was crucial and Belmont were the first to have the assistance of the strong breeze which was blowing diagonally, down the field towards the road end of the ground and across the ground towards the dugouts.
However the accuracy that was Belmont’s hallmark in 2011 deserted them in the first few minutes and they missed three of their first four chances, while at the other end Simon Whelahan took a lovely point from a tight angle to cancel out Mark Egan’s opening score.
Nearly a quarter of the game had passed before Belmont finally registered a point from play, Mark Egan scoring after David Kenny did well to win a ball in traffic in the Birr defence, and they could have a had a goal a couple of minutes later when Damo Egan fielded a 65 that dropped short and blasted a shot narrowly over the bar on the turn.
Belmont needed that goal as the game turned against them in the 20th minute thanks to a lovely first time strike from Thomas Bolger.
Luck was certainly on Birr’s side in the build up – Paul Cleary had struck two immaculate frees earlier in the game but now he mishit one from 60m out, only for Seán T O’Connor to field the ball and get a shot away. The ball bounced off the top of the crossbar and broke perfectly for Bolger, who executed a perfect first time volley to the corner of the Belmont net. The chance was fortuitous, but the finish was exquisite.
Birr kicked on to lead by 1-7 to 0-6 at half time, the best of their scores coming from Seán Ryan out on the right wing.
Belmont made a brief surge at the start of the second half and succeeded in getting two of the first three points.
Their goal lived a charmed life too as Dylan Hayden and O’Connor both missed goal chances, but up front the Birr backs were suffocating the Belmont forwards and inexorably, the scores started to mount up.
O’Connor hit three, Barry Whelahan hit a beauty from out on the sideline and Belmont just had no answer. Substitute Shane Nally did strike goal in the last minute when a Damo Egan free was blocked into his path, but by this point all the bets on Belmont were nothing more than crumpled up dockets waiting to be discarded.
BIRR: Brian Mullins; Mark Quinlan, Barry Harding, Eoin Hayes; Brian Watkins, Paul Cleary (0-3, frees), Emmett Nolan; Paul Molloy (0-1), Barry Whelahan (0-1); Colm Mulrooney (0-5, frees), Seán Ryan (0-1), Dylan Hayden; Seán T O’Connor (0-3), Simon Whelahan (0-1), Thomas Bolger (1-2). Subs.: None
BELMONT: Ciarán Kearns; Derek Kenny, John Egan, Kieran McManus; Jamie Flynn, David Kenny, James Murphy; David Cox, Mark Egan (0-6, 0-5 frees); Colin Egan, Ciarán Kenny, Leon Fox; Paul Egan, Damo Egan (0-2), Alan Egan. Sub: Shane Nally (1-0) for Ciarán Kenny.
REFEREE: Aidan Ryan (Lusmagh)