By far the most annoying thing we’ve had to put up with – to my mind at least – since the seniors’ untimely exit from this year’s championship has been the way so many have queued up to express condolences about the apparent death of football in the county. While the seniors’ championship defeat was, for sure, a major setback for us, the blow we suffered at Newbridge was far from fatal and today at Carrick-on-Shannon our U20s provided tangible proof that football in Mayo is far from finished.
So, although the senior team won’t get the chance to grace the Croke Park turf this year it appears all but certain that Mike Solan’s young charges will. Following this afternoon’s 2-14 to 2-11 win over Derry in what was in every sense a rip-roaring All-Ireland semi-final fixture, the decider looks set to be fixed for HQ as the curtain-raiser to the Dublin/Roscommon Super 8 tie in three weeks time.
In another intriguing twist, the final will be against Kildare who pulled off a major shock in the day’s other U20 semi-final this afternoon. The Lilywhite youngsters beat Kerry by a point to set up what should be a fascinating final against a county we’ll now be itching to get one over. Funny old world it can be at times.
Páirc Seán is a place I hadn’t stood in since 2006 – the fine, compact stand that now graces the ground wasn’t there then – which makes the Leitrim venue the final county ground in Connacht I’ve seen a game in since the inception of the blog. If we ever draw anyone other than Galway in the Connacht championship I might even get to see a senior championship match there at some point.
There was a decent sized crowd there this afternoon – around 2,000 or so, the bulk from our side of the fence – with most taking up station in the stand. That’s where Rob and I parked too – yes, seeing as you’re asking, there will be an episode of the Mayo News football podcast on the game, that’ll be online on Monday – and it was from that vantage point that we saw a real blood and thunder championship contest unfold.
We struck first and with effect. Shortly after throw-in captain Ryan O’Donoghue pounced on a ball played into him, skipped past the cover, rounded the ‘keeper and walked the ball into the net.
Derry responded well, though, steadying themselves with points from a free and a ’45. Tommy Conroy twice went on blistering runs down the left-hand channel but, while we got no reward on the scoreboard the first time, Ross Egan pointed a free when the man from The Neale had his second foray stopped by a foul.
Suddenly, though, our early advantage was wiped out. Derry’s burly full-forward, Callum Brown, showed his marker a clean pair of heels as he accelerated in from the left wing and smashed home a superb goal.
Paul Lambert belted over a super rejoinder for us but soon after we were cut open at the back again, the Oakleafers’ second goal pushing them three points clear. We were wobbling now but another Ross Egan free helped to steady us.
We could have had a second goal ourselves but Conor Diskin – played in by Johnny Maughan – aimed a fly-kick at the ball from point-blank range only to see it career wide of the open goal. A Derry point straight after deepened doubts about how we were coping in this contest.
We then had what looked to be very strong shout for a penalty turned down. By now both sets of fans were giving the ref loads but, to be fair to him, he was being consistent. Anything – and I mean anything – went, providing the player being tackled stayed on his feet. It made for a hard-hitting, physical contest but both teams saw this as a licence to play at the edge rather than well over it, with the net result that it was a real full-throated battle. With quixotic reffing thrown into the mix.
We did get the odd free, though, and Ross Egan thumped over a marvellous long-range one to cut the deficit to two. Then Ryan O’Donoghue was hauled down as he tried again to squirm clear in the danger zone and Ross tapped that one over too.
Oisin McLaughlin – who had a superb game today and was rightly picked out as the Man of the Match on Midwest – then raided forward and landed a screamer to level the match up. Seconds before half-time Evan O’Brien launched what at first glance seemed like a hit-and-hope effort which took forever to come back down to earth. When it did, though, it was down between the posts it came and we went in a point to the good.
It was Derry, however, who took a hold on the game after the break. We’d struck first blood – when a Ross Egan free didn’t make the distance, Conor Diskin claimed it and fired over – but over the next ten minutes the Ulster champions turned the screw on us, with three unanswered points edging them a point ahead.
But then the tie swung again. A clever, through-the-hands move ended with Paul Lambert shooting to the net and we were back in front once more. A long-range Ross Egan free stretched our lead to three as we now looked the likelier to prevail.
But back came the gritty Oakleafers. A sumptuous outside-of-the-boot effort from sub Brian Cassidy, followed by a converted free for them, made it a one-point match once more midway through the second half.
We got the next score – from Oisin McLaughlin – and the one after it too, this one from sub John Gallagher, who claimed the Derry restart, broke forward and fired over.
Cathal Horan was then black-carded – harshly it appeared – with Joe Dawson coming on. Derry pointed a free but then narrowly missed a goal chance soon after when they cut through our backline with alarming ease.
But then we got a gilt-edged chance to put the contest to bed. Ryan O’Donoghue was hauled down in the square but the Belmullet player’s spot-kick was superbly batted away by Derry’s ‘keeper Oran Hartin.
We were still two up at that stage – with about six minutes to go – but that miss looked like it might tip the psychological advantage in this compelling contest in their direction. We kept our nerve, though, and claimed the next score, with Ryan O’Donoghue releasing John Gallagher – who was a real super-sub for us today – to fire over his second score.
Roars of May-Oh! May-Oh! May-Oh! now rang out around the stand as the game entered injury time. Only a goal, it seemed, would save Derry. They damn near got one too, a rasping shot cannoning back off our upright and, in the scramble that ensued from the rebound, they got a close-in free which they pointed.
It was all Derry now. Callum Brown was running amok out the field – Nathan Moran took one for the team just after the penalty, earning a black card for wrestling the Derry player to the turf to stop an attack – and our defending was getting more and more frantic.
There was still another two minutes of injury time to play when Derry got their next point, to cut the gap back to one. They were doing all of the attacking, our lads looked out on their feet. Could we hold out? It didn’t, in truth, look like we would.
But then the match took a final improbable turn. From the next restart we retained possession and eventually the ball was fed to Tommy Conroy. He took off at pace and then, when he got within range, coolly fisted the ball over the bar. From the kickout we got possession again. Again it was The Neale player who got it in the danger zone and again he had the good sense to play the percentages and settle for the point. Those two cool-headed scores saw us over the line, as we won by 2-14 to 2-11 at the end.
It was a super performance, one which saw strong performances all over the field for us. The backline was under real pressure on several occasions but they coped well and both Paul Lambert and Oisin McLaughlin wreaked merry havoc on their repeated attacking thrusts.
Evan O’Brien and Jordan Flynn both did well at midfield and, while Ryan O’Donoghue did damage for us, he was closely chaperoned throughout by the hirsute Eoghan Concannon. Nathan Moran, Tommy Conroy, Conor Diskin and sub John Gallagher all did well in attack, where Ross Egan contributed handsomely from placed balls.
So it’s now onto the All-Ireland final for county’s young guns. Another huge test awaits Mike Solan’s charges then but this team showed today that they’re not a group that shirks a challenge, no matter how it’s thrown at them. Congrats to them on a cracking win today, one that provides a much-needed morale boost to football fans within the county.
Mayo: Paddy O’Malley; Johnny Maughan, Brian O’Malley, John Cunnane; Paul Lambert (1-1), Cathal Horan, Oisin McLaughlin (0-2); Evan O’Brien (0-1), Jordan Flynn; Nathan Moran (0-1), Ryan O’Donoghue (1-0), Tommy Conroy (0-2); Conor Diskin (0-1), Ross Egan (0-5, frees), Colm Moran. Subs: John Gallagher (0-2) for Colm Moran, Joe Dawson for Horan (black card), Seán Og Tigue for Nathan Moran (black card).
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A quick word about the ladies who this afternoon overcame Cavan in a high-scoring encounter at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones. It’s been a very difficult week for ladies football in the county and the ructions in the camp of late meant that the team had the worst possible run-up to today’s match. Fair play to them, they responded to the challenge in the best possible fashion and today’s win now sees them set fair to make the knockout stages in the championship.
As the saying goes, when the going gets tough the tough get going. Well done to them on a superb win today.
Audio report from Carrick-on-Shannon: