We came close, so close, to clinching the minor All-Ireland today but in the end Tyrone had that bit more in the tank in extra time. Hard luck, lads – you left everything out there on the pitch today at Pearse Park and we can’t ask for anything more than that.
It was a day of heartstopping tension in Longford where, as expected, the ground was packed to the rafters and the majority of the crowd were Mayo supporters. Once we hit the tailback at Edgeworthstown on the way down from Dublin, it felt for all the world as if we were heading off to a senior championship match in July and this feeling was reinforced once we got closer to the ground, with thousands pouring into Pearse Park to see the final piece of inter-county championship action for 2008. The atmosphere inside the ground was electric too, with the lads getting a rousing reception as they took the field, where the throw-in had to be delayed for nearly twenty minutes due to the traffic congestion outside.
We’d started positively the last day in Croke Park but, from the throw-in today, we were on the back foot and, if we’re to be honest with ourselves, we were struggling to stay with this slick, confident and fast moving Tyrone outfit for much of today’s replay. They settled quickest with two early points before an Aiden Walsh free on six minutes got us off the mark. We’d already missed an early goal chance after their opening point when Aiden O’Shea’s effort – where the ball seemed to cannon off his shin – was cleared off the line.
They got another from play and at this stage were well on top at midfield, especially in snaffling up the breaking ball. Raymond Geraghty got our first point from play to narrow the gap to one but then we had a narrow escape when Robert Hennelly made a superb stop in a one-on-one situation. It was to be the first of many important interventions for us by the Breaffy keeper.
Kyle Coney got one from play to edge the Northeners two ahead and the Ardbo youngster was to enjoy a far more productive day today – I think he must have ended up with at least six points, all from play as well. However, we finally showed signs of settling, with Shane Nally driving over a point from play and a booming fifty from Aiden Walsh soon after brought us level. Five minutes later, Eoin Reilly stormed upfield and his point from play gave us the lead for the first time.
Just like happened last Sunday, though, Tyrone roared back into it in those final six minutes of the half, rattling over four points from play to seize a three-point lead. Another Aiden Walsh free cut the gap to two at the break.
Tyrone were out of the traps quickest in the second half and a Paddy McNeice free restored their three-point advantage within 30 seconds of the throw-in. James Cafferty provided the perfect response as he went on a long, loping run and finished confidently to cut the deficit to two again. We upped the tempo at this stage but a series of misplaced passes meant that we didn’t put them under the kind of pressure we should have and then a good move deep into Tyrone territory ended with an Alex Corduff wide.
Eventually, an Aiden O’Shea free brought us some reward for our efforts but Tyrone responded almost straight away with a point from play. The next three scores were ours, however, with two Aiden Walsh frees (this one was an absolute beauty) bookending a marvelous booming point from play from Aiden O’Shea. The big Breaffy man had had a quiet enough first half but his size and tenacity were now beginning to tell around the middle.
We really needed to kick on at this stage but instead another free brought Tyrone level and then Robert Hennelly made another miraculous save, tipping the ball onto the upright from where it was somehow scrambled away. O’Shea then went on a brilliant, surging run – having been put clear by a clever pass from Aiden Walsh – and he passed to sub Daniel O’Hara who put us a point up once more. The Tom Markham Cup seemed to be inching its way towards us at this stage but, although we didn’t know it at the time, this would be the last time we’d hold the lead in this match.
Two quick Tyrone points from play, the first from Donnelly and the other from Coney, edged the Red Hand lads back in front with four minutes to go but then Shane Nally scored a cracking point from play, having been played in by the quick-thinking O’Shea. With time almost up, Tyrone got a 14 yards free which, when they converted it, looked to be the winner but Aiden Walsh nailed a far tougher one at the other end to send the match into extra-time.
At this stage, it looked impossible to separate the two sides as they’d both played their hearts out. If someone in the crowd had had the foresight to bring a circular saw with them, the fairest thing would have been to cut the cup in two but instead we were faced with two ten minute periods of extra-time to see if we could find a winner. As the lads emerged from the dressing room for extra time, we were as confident as the Nordies were that it would be Mayo who would prevail in extra-time.
It became apparent very quickly in extra-time which team would win and, sadly, it wasn’t going to be our lads. As they’d done at the start of both halves, Tyrone grabbed the initiative at the outset of extra-time and two McNeice frees and another point from play from Coney put them three points clear, with another Robert Hennelly save before Coney’s score keeping us in it. Cathal Freeman was played in by Corduff at the other end soon after but the Aghamore man’s goal effort was deflected out for a fifty which Aiden Walsh screwed wide.
Three points down at the turnaround and we needed to a good start in the second period of extra-time but instead Tyrone killed us off with a fortuitous goal. A wild effort at the point by McNeice dropped into the square and Hennelly, who had saved our ass repeatedly up till then, fumbled the catch allowing one of the Tyrone forwards to bundle it home. Six down with less than ten minutes of extra-time to go, we were dead in the water. James Cafferty pulled a goal back from a ball lofted into the square by Aiden O’Shea but they had the luxury of tapping a late penalty over the bar and we couldn’t get any closer than five points at the end of what was an enthralling and emotionally draining contest.
It’s tough to walk away empty-handed yet again from an All-Ireland, all the more so because we all know deep down that we had the game effectively won the first day. It doesn’t matter how many times it has happened – every one of them hurt and this one hurts just as bad.
We should, however, be enormously proud of our minors who, although they didn’t make it across the line today, came so tantalisingly close to doing so. Their run to the All-Ireland final and their two gutsy performances in the final itself has served to rescue what was otherwise an indifferent year for football in the county and the heart and tenacity they’ve shown repeatedly over the last few games should make us optimistic for the future. Sure, like all those other unwon All-Irelands, it would have been great to see them lift the cup today but these lads ensured that we’d still be out following championship football on the last Saturday in September and, in doing so, they’ve given us many great memories to warm our hearts over the winter. They deserve our sincere thanks and appreciation for doing this.