We lost our U21 All-Ireland semi-final to Kerry at Nenagh this afternoon – the second year in a row where we’ve fallen at the penultimate hurdle – but only after we’d clawed our way back into a game that was looking lost as early as half-time. We were beaten in the end by just two points, 1-9 to 1-7, with Kerry finally turning the tide on our comeback and scoring the last three points of the game in the final seven minutes. The defeat was rough enough justice on our lads, given the way we tore into them from early in the second half and then owned the pitch for most of the 30 minutes that followed, but Kerry had just enough in the tank to eke out a close victory.
The first half was a little short of a disaster for us. We never got into the game and, although the backs were good throughout – with Ger Cafferkey and especially Tom Cunniffe immense – every single long ball into the forwards was swallowed up by the Kerry backs who then used the possession to attack us with a succession of swift, confident passing movements. Once Kerry got their goal in the 20th minute, when Kerry’s full-forward Tommy Walsh fielded a sideline ball from the left and slipped it to the in-running John Buckley who finished neatly, we were struggling and the surprise was that we weren’t further than 4 points (1-3 to 0-2) behind at the break. Both of our points had come from corner-forward Padraic O’Connor, one from play and the other from a free.
For some strange reason, Aidan Campbell started on the bench, with Thady Gavin replacing him at right-half forward. Before the first half was up, however, the Swinford man had joined the fray and the reason for his original omission was now even more of a puzzle, as he clearly wasn’t injured and our forward line had looked weaker without him.
We started the second half with a smart Tom Parsons point but Kerry then tacked on three at the other end in five minutes and it began to look as if they were going to beat us out the gate. Incredibly, however, that was Kerry’s last score till seven minutes from the end, by which time our lads had turned that six-point deficit into the slenderest of leads.
It all began with a bit of a fluky goal, when Seamus O’Shea took what looked like a shot for a point which dropped short and Mikey Sweeney, who was clearly inside the square when O’Shea let fly, skipped out smartly to meet the ball, turned and whacked it into the net. A minute later, Tom Cunniffe launched himself downfield on yet another buccaneering run and fired over a point to cut the gap to just two. Our midfield, largely bypassed in the opening half, now began to assert a firm grip on the game and so, for the next twenty minutes or so, it was all one-way traffic, as the large Mayo support at last found its voice.
Seamus O’Shea socked it to his ancestors by knocking over Mayo’s fifth point, again from play, and then Padraic O’Connor sent over an absolute monster score from way out on the right. The Kerry backs signalled furiously that this one had gone wide but the point stood and so the game was back level, with just over 15 minutes left on the clock. Kerry then had two wides in quick succession and we had one at the other end before Mikey Sweeeney edged us in front for the first and only time with seven minutes to go.
A shock win for our lads was just beginning to look on the cards but a Kerry free a minute later levelled matters again and then two scions of the great 70s/80s Kerry side combined to snatch victory for the Kingdom. First, midfielder David (son of Ogie) Moran thumped over a long-range point from play and then, just after Kieran Sweeney came agonisingly close to equalising in injury time, Tommy (son of Sean) Walsh fielded the ball in midfield, powered on and slotted the insurance point over the bar. It’s all in the breed, you see.
It was hard luck on the lads and had they shown that second-half commitment for the full hour, they’d surely have done it. Why they opened as lethargic as they did was a mystery but, once they started to tear into Kerry, there was only one team in it. That said, Kerry did well to weather the storm and filch the win at the end.
Our best performers on the day were, unsurprisingly, the lads who have already made it to the senior panel, in particular Ger Cafferkey, Tom Cunniffe, who showed emphatically today that he’s a half-back and a fine one at that (Johnno please note), Chris Barrett, Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons. Mikey Sweeney and Padraic O’Connor were the pick of the forwards and although Aidan Campbell did okay when he came on, it’s still an odd one that he wasn’t on from the start.
So, another case of hard luck, another defeat to Kerry to contemplate. Never mind, Summer’s on the way …