What’s rare, they say, is beautiful. Teams from Mayo – even ones going into a final, as Westport did today, as odds-on favourites to prevail – haven’t exactly spoiled us with happy endings at Croke Park. In those nerve-shredding final moments of today’s All-Ireland IFC club decider it began to look as if we’d have another one to add to the list. But the lads from way out west held out, prevailing over Meath’s St Colmcille’s by a single point, 2-12 to 3-8, to land the All-Ireland title.
The match was just underway when I got to Croke Park this afternoon, a ten-minute queue at the single ticket van that was in operation on Jones’ Road delaying myself and the young lad from getting into the Hogan Stand. With everyone packed into the lower tier on that side, the atmosphere was great inside HQ, where most of the 9,000 punters seemed to be rooting for Westport.
The Meath club opened the day’s scoring, via their danger man Graham Reilly, but it was the Mayo lads who soon got on top in this contest. A flurry of confidently taken points into the Hill 16 end put them well in control as the first half wore on.
This was despite losing full-back Kevin Keane to what looked like a nasty leg injury after only ten minutes. Kevin had started the game in authoritative mood and his loss could have been a real hammer blow. Instead sub David Horan slotted into the back line as further upfield the young Covies began to turn the screw on their Meath opponents.
Eight points on the spin saw Westport take a firm hold on the game. Colmcille’s hardly broke out of their own half of the field as they endured this onslaught but break they eventually did and to effect. Graham Reilly hit the accelerator as he tore through the heart of the Westport defence before offloading to James Conlon who smashed the ball to the net.
Westport’s reply was immediate and impressive. Oisin McLoughlin won a ball he had no claim on out the wing before advancing forward, cutting inside and unleashing a shot that cannoned off the post and into the net.
Westport led by six at the break but several wides early in the second half meant that they missed the chance to put the game to bed. Some of these were frees that definitely fell into the scoreable category – what they wouldn’t have done to have had cruciate victim Lewis Cawley lining up those.
The net result was that although they were on top pretty much all over the field – with Lee Keegan ever vigilant at the back, Shane Scott powerful and dominant in the middle, while Fionn McDonagh, Colm Moran and Oisin McLoughlin were always good outlets in the forwards – Westport had still left the door ajar for Colmcille’s.
A goal completely against the run of play for the Meath side got them back into it but, once more, the Mayo lads responded brilliantly to the setback, racking up a further 1-2 without reply. The goal, a Leaving Cert student special involving Colm Moran as creator and Oisin McLoughlin as finisher, restored Westport’s six-point advantage with ten minutes to go and it finally looked to have decided matters.
But the goal was Westport’s final score of the day. The remaining ten minutes, not to mention the six minutes of injury time that followed, belonged to Colmcille’s who threw the kitchen sink at it and almost snatched victory at the death.
I didn’t get a good view of the penalty incident, nor do I know if the black card given to Westport goalkeeper Patrick O’Malley was merited. What was clear, though, was that the ref took an inordinate amount of time to deal with the issue – the ‘keeper had taken the goal-kick after the incident, which appeared to be over at that stage, before the ref ran back into the square to signal the penalty and order O’Malley from the field.
Sub Jack Reynolds dispatched the penalty to the net and two points knocked over into the Hill end after that cut Westport’s lead right back to the minimum. Colmcille’s even had a pot at an equaliser but the Mayo lads somehow held out to win by a single point.
It felt great to be there at HQ after the final whistle, The Green and Red of Mayo belting out over the PR system and the large Westport support celebrating what their heroes out on the pitch had achieved. It sure felt nice too not to have to trudge wearily out of Croke Park at the end of an All-Ireland final but instead to linger and soak up that winning atmosphere to the full.
And it was great to see Lee Keegan – at 27, the daddy of this most callow team of champions – finally achieve All-Ireland success. Great too to witness Kevin Keane, as luckless as he is lion-hearted, play his part in getting his club over the line today. Congrats to both of these great Mayo warriors.
While this was a Westport win from start to finish – and fair play to them for going all the way, with such style and determination – it’s hard not to tempt fate and see in the victory some wider significance for the county.
Sure, our final record is worse than appalling and, yes, we’ve had decider day heartbreak up to our eyeballs at this stage. But today showed that this script can be rewritten, that Mayo teams – if they play in the confident way that Westport did for long spells today – can come to Croke Park and win All-Ireland finals. And, no question, we could all get used to the joy of winning. Well done, Westport, for doing the business in such memorable fashion today.
Westport: Patrick O’Malley (0-1, ’45); Niall McManamon, Kevin Keane, Keelan Dever; Brian O’Malley, Brian McDermott, James Walsh; Lee Keegan, Shane Scott (0-3); Fionn McDonagh (0-3, two frees), Phil Keegan (0-1), Liam Staunton; Colm Moran (0-4), Paul Lambert, Oisin McLoughlin (2-0). Subs: David Horan for Keane, Ronan Geraghty for Staunton, Arron Dunne for Patrick O’Malley (black card).
Audio report from Croke Park: