Well done to the lads today who came within seconds of landing the All-Ireland minor football title but who in the end had to settle for an 0-14 each draw. We’ll win the replay, don’t worry, because (a) we’re far the better team, (b) we won’t be outnumbered in terms of support and (c) sure won’t the Nordies be on the beer for the week after the exploits of their seniors?
A point up with two minutes of injury time played: you can’t come much closer to winning an All-Ireland than this. In those frantic last few seconds, it really did seem as if we’d done enough to claim our seventh All-Ireland minor title and our first for 23 years but this wasn’t to be the case. Tyrone proved to be the stickiest of opponents and they just refused to surrender, taking full advantage from one final throw of the dice deep in stoppage time when half-forward Matthew Donnelly fired over a long range point to level the match at 0-14 each. In truth, it was no more than they deserved but we’d still have been more than happy to come away with victory by the narrowest of margins. Instead, we have to do it all again next Saturday at Pearse Park in Longford where I’m confident enough we’ll finish the job.
We looked like winners for most of the 60 minutes today, with two early Cathal Freeman points from play helping to put us 0-3 to 0-1 up after ten minutes. They cut the deficit to two just after but we then hit a purple patch over the next five minutes, with this point from play by Aiden O’Shea and two from Aiden Walsh, this one from a free, to send us four points clear. When Cathal Freeman restored our four-point advantage ten minutes before the break, just after Paddy McNeice had pulled one back for them, we looked like we were cruising.
It turned out we weren’t as they hit us with five points without reply in those final ten minutes of the half and, in doing so, ended up going into the break a point to the good. We’d dominated much of the half but our inability to cope with their tactical shift after twenty minutes – when they stopped pumping the ball in and started running at us instead – had robbed us of the initiative at the halfway stage.
A point from play from captain Shane Nally seconds after the restart was a good statement of intent and the teams went at each other with abandon from here on in. We traded points to leave it at nine each then they pulled two clear before Cathal Freeman got his fourth from play and then Aiden Walsh bagged another free to level it up again with ten minutes to go. Aiden O’Shea then hit a monster point from play to edge us back in front with eight minutes left on the clock and it began to look like it might be our day.
But again Tyrone came, with two points to edge them in front by one and, with Croker now filling up, the huge Red Hand support was threatening to overwhelm us, even if we were getting some lackadaisical backing from the Kerry crowd to augment the noisy Mayo following. Now it was our turn to come at them and we didn’t have long to wait as sub Dean Gavin fired over a point from play to level the match again. Then we won a free thirty or so yards out on the right and Aiden Walsh atoned for an earlier miss from little more than14 yards by cracking this pressure score over.
That looked to be the winner and it would have deserved to be so as we twice withstood their last gasp attempts to break us down. However, both times we succeeded in breaking up their attacks and reclaiming the ball, we then ceded possession back to them cheaply. The second time this happened we paid the full price for it as they worked the ball into a scoring position and Donnelly shot bravely from distance into the Hill to secure a second bite of the cherry for the Ulster champions.
It felt cruel to see victory snatched away from us at the death but looking back at it now we have no reason to feel sorry for ourselves. Six minutes from time – when we were a point behind – we’d’ve gladly taken the draw and it was obviously a match we could as easily have lost as won. Sure, it would have been great to see them lift the cup today in front of the big Croke Park crowd and the far bigger TV audience but this team can still win their All-Ireland and coming away from Croker later this afternoon, I felt convinced – and I’m still convinced now – that win it we will.
The lads did us proud today with a display of open, honest and brave football and they more than matched everything that a very good Tyrone team – who had the benefit of that enormous Nordie support – had to throw at them. We had plenty of heroes today, notably goalie Robert Hennelly, full-back Kevin Keane and forwards Cathal Freeman and Aiden Walsh but the hero of the hour was undoubtedly Aiden O’Shea. The big Breaffy youngster played today with a still-broken thumb (I know for sure now that it was broken as he told me so himself at the official function tonight) and, despite this, he put in one of the finest performances seen in the colours in Croke Park for a very long time. He was truly awesome.
So now it’s onto Longford next Saturday (throw-in 2.30pm) where there’s a job of work to be completed. All Mayo people who consider themselves as supporters need to make it their business to be there next Saturday as Tyrone will bring a huge, euphoric following and will be looking to clinch a notable double. We need to match them on the terraces as well as on the field and, after their heroics in this campaign, these lads deserve all the support we can give them for this final, decisive push to glory. Our title haul will be more modest than Tyrone’s this year but as far as I’m concerned they had their fun today – and, boy, did they have fun in that compelling and wonderfully absorbing senior final – but next Saturday down in Longford it’s going to be our turn.
I’ll leave the final word for tonight to the County Board Chairman James Waldron who, in addressing the official dinner tonight, said that although it’s been 23 years since we last won a minor All-Ireland, “we’ve only six more days to wait for our next one”. He’s right, you know, and it would be a real shame for any Mayo supporter to pass up on the chance of seeing it happen. I, for one, don’t intend to miss it.