A penalty shoot-out – the first ever in Croke Park.
Matthew Tierney was never going to shirk responsibility, and here’s why … in a previous sporting incarnation, representing Galway schoolboys soccer in the FAI’s flagship U-14 tournament, he had ducked out of one.
“We’d be practising them away, so I had to put the hand up,” he now says of his decision to volunteer for spot-kick duty with Galway.
“I remember, I was playing soccer a long time ago – it was U-14 Kennedy Cup,” he expands. “We lost, and it was a penalty shoot-out and I refused to take one. I was one of the better kickers on the team. Never again – you have to step up.”
To borrow from the lexicon of the same code – fail to prepare, prepare to fail – you can only surmise that Galway had been preparing for this moment from the very second that penalty shoot-outs were enshrined in the GAA rulebook.
In the battle of wills from 11 metres, their four conversions from Shane Walsh, Damien Comer, Rob Finnerty and finally Tierney were all textbook. Armagh had missed two of their first three kicks so, when Tierney stepped up, he knew the maths.
His left boot did the rest.
“Ah, an absolutely incredible feeling,” he now recounts. “Everyone from Oughterard knew where I was going anyway; if you watched the county final, I put it bottom left as well, so they were calling it.
“It was an incredible moment, and the stand went crazy. It was class to have the stand there as well – with Covid last year, it wasn’t half as enjoyable. But a full packed-out Croker, it was class.”
While that nerve-jangling victory propelled Galway into the All-Ireland conversation, it had already been a season of watershed moments for Pádraic Joyce’s team.
Immediate promotion back to Division 1 was important; ending their recent Mayo hoodoo at the first Connacht fence far more so.
Since then, they’ve accounted for Roscommon, Armagh (eventually) and finally Derry. In the process, a bond has been forged between players and supporters.
Recounting the reception that greeted two-goal hero Damien Comer as he came off to a rousing ovation against Derry, Tierney says: “It was such a lift. You see that on the pitch, when the crowd gets moved. And even the parade around, it was something else.”
Still only 21, Tierney is a young man in a hurry. He began 2020 by capturing an All-Ireland intermediate club title with Oughterard and, many lockdown months later, finished out the year in December by winning an All-Ireland U-20 medal with Galway.
Senior elevation was close at hand, and he marked his SFC debut by scoring 1-3 against Roscommon in last year’s Connacht semi-final. He was named RTÉ’s Man of the Match that day, and there followed a Young Footballer of the Year nomination.
To see one so young handed vice-captaincy of his county may be unusual; but then Tierney has already shown his leadership pedigree, skippering NUIG to a first Sigerson Cup success since 2003 last February.
On a horrendous night in Carlow, NUIG secured 0-12 to 1-6 victory over a University of Limerick side containing none other than David Clifford … and it was safeguarded in no small part thanks to a diving defensive ‘mark’ by Tierney late in the game.
“A huge, huge moment,” said NUIG boss Maurice Sheridan afterwards. “He held his composure. He is a top-class footballer.”
Tierney hopes that nights such as that offer further evidence that Galway players can thrive on the biggest stage. “It was a great day down there,” he recalls. “Well ... it was a terrible day, wasn’t it? We did our job and stuck with the game-plan.”
And this week’s plan? Keeping the head down, focusing on Galway’s own preparations and their plans to stifle Kerry in Sunday’s All-Ireland decider. Tierney’s mother hails from Castleisland; she even went to school with David and Paudie Clifford’s mum.
“I have the phone taken off her for the week, don’t worry!” he signs off.