The final frontier proved to be a bridge too far for the county’s U20s today at Croke Park. In a highly entertaining and free-scoring decider it was a sharper and more clinical Kildare team that deservedly came out on top, winning the inaugural All-Ireland title at this level by 1-18 to 1-16. Congrats to them and commiserations to our lads, who fought bravely right to the end.
It’s not difficult to pin-point why the Lilies came out on top in this decider. There was an enormous contrast in the way the two backlines dealt with the respective attacking threats they faced. Time and again the speedy, dangerous Kildare forwards were allowed to claim possession unchallenged and shoot devoid of any pressure on them. The Lilywhite backs, meanwhile, defended like demons every time we worked the ball forward, making sure to apply maximum pressure on the shooter every single time.
This meant that while their dangermen – in particular MOTM Jimmy Hyland who finished with an eye-watering ten points to his credit – got free rein to express their talents, our main men found themselves shackled. Ryan O’Donoghue did burst clear once in the first half, and bagged a super goal when he did so, but aside from that he was well held. Ross Egan and Tommy Conroy also found it hard to make space and so caused little damage from open play.
For all that, though, we only lost it by two points so in that sense it could be argued that it was Kildare’s greater accuracy and efficiency in front of the posts that saw them home. Our shooting became more and more wayward in the second half and, on top of that, Ross Egan saw an excellent one-on-one goal chance late on blocked by the Kildare ‘keeper.
Kildare signalled their intentions right from the throw-in, bagging their opening point from play with less than a minute on the clock. We settled well after that, though, with a Colm Moran point from play followed by a Ross Egan free edging us a point in front.
But that was the only time we led at Croke Park today. They converted a close-in free at the other end to level and in their next attack found the net. McLoughlin claimed the high ball in, beat his marker and slipped it home. Hyland then added two points inside a minute and already we were in bother in this contest.
Our backline was visibly unsettled, with Johnny Maughan having taken a knock up the field before the goal was scored. The unfortunate Castlebar Mitchels player was withdrawn after that Kildare scoring burst, with Joe Dawson replacing him, as Cathal Horan switched to corner-back.
We steadied the ship a bit after that. Colm Moran, after a surging Tommy Conroy burst, pointed from the right and then Ross Egan tapped over a close-in free when Conor Diskin was rugby-tackled to the floor. The Kildare offender walked on a black card for that offence.
Points were then traded, our riposte to their score a belter from distance by Oisin McLaughlin. A purple patch for Kildare followed, though, as they tacked on four points in as many minutes to lead by seven.
It was frees by Ross Egan that kept us in touch (just about) after this torrid period. But then, out of the blue, Ryan O’Donoghue burst forward at speed, dummied beautifully to evade the cover and bagged the goal. Game on.
But Kildare responded like prospective champions should. For the second time in the half, Hyland pumped over two points inside a minute and the Lilies were back in control once more. We got the gap down to four at the break, another Hyland point bookended by scores from Evan O’Brien and Ross Egan, the latter another free.
We upped the gas after the break, cutting the gap back to two. Conor Diskin got the first, using his power to open up space for the shot, and then Colm Moran, fed by Ryan O’Donoghue, got the next one. At the other end we started better too, forcing the Kildare forwards out wide where their shooting efforts finally started to go a bit off-key.
We had an opportunity to turn the screw some more but Ross Egan’s effort from a difficult free out under the Cusack Stand dropped short. Soon after Hyland opened their second half account and it was the same player who got the next two scores as well, the second from a free.
We weren’t helping ourselves with some wild shooting. Twice HawkEye was called to adjudicate on shots into the Hill end and twice the verdict was close but no cigar. Jordan Flynn also shot narrowly wide after a powerful burst forward.
We had made a few switches by then. Evan O’Brien was replaced soon after the break by John Gallagher, Liam Hughes came on for Tommy Conroy and Stephen McGreal was introduced in place of Colm Moran. Before the end Sean Og Tigue would also make a brief appearance, when he replaced the banished Cathal Horan, who picked up a black card.
Down the closing stretch we made a valiant effort to haul the fat from the fire. How might the game have finished had Ross Egan buried that goal chance? Impossible to tell, of course, but full marks to the Kildare ‘keeper for the way he protected his goal as the Aghamore player bore down on the target.
Patrick O’Malley boomed over the resultant ’45 and then when Ross Egan pointed – after what looked like a fairly charitable free awarded to us – the gap was down to two. Time was almost up but the game’s momentum was now all with us.
Then Jordan Flynn had his moment of madness. He was penalised for some midfield grappling following Kildare’s restart and was incadescent at the ref’s decision to ping him. I didn’t see what happened next but whatever it was the Crossmolina player got a straight red for his trouble. The red mist had now come down properly and he gave ref Niall Cullen – who, it has to be said, was excellent throughout today – a hefty shove in the chest before departing the field.
It’s impossible to defend what Jordan did. But he’s a young lad and he’ll know himself how out of line he was so there’s no need to fry him for it either, as some Mayo “fans” were very quick to do on social media straight after. Let he who is without sin and all that. Except, of course, on Twitter.
Hyland applied the coup de grace after the sending-off, closing out their total with his tenth score of the day. I read after the game (hat tip to @dontfoul) that there was enormous pressure to call Hyland, and a few others, up to the seniors after the Carlow debacle but the temptation was resisted. Kerry brought up their starlets to the senior ranks and have ended their year – at both U20 and senior levels – with nothing, whereas Kildare are now All-Ireland U20 champions. Fair play to them.
We got the game’s final two scores, both from Ryan O’Donoghue. The second one was from a 14 yard-free, with almost the entire Kildare team massed on their goal-line. The Belmullet player had no option but to go for goal but his shot cannoned off a white shirt and over and Kildare were the winners.
We can have no complaints about the result. Kildare were strong ante-post favourites and you’d have to say they largely justified that tag today. We knew coming into the final that our backline was a bit loose and that was always going to leave us in trouble against the quality forwards Kildare had in their ranks.
What was encouraging, though, was how the lads never gave up and with a small bit more composure in front of the posts in the second half they might just have robbed it. Robbery it would have been but there would have been no complaints had we managed to pull it off.
So it’s hard luck to Mike Solan and his young charges. Their run to the decider was a bright spot for the county on an otherwise depressing summer for us and the positive showing by a number of these players provides more than a little proof that the future remains bright for the county. Up Mayo.
Mayo: Patrick O’Malley (0-1, ’45); Johnny Maughan, Brian O’Malley, John Cunnane; Paul Lambert, Cathal Horan, Oisin McLaughlin (0-1); Evan O’Brien (0-1), Jordan Flynn; Nathan Moran, Ryan O’Donoghue (1-2, one free), Tommy Conroy; Conor Diskin (0-1), Ross Egan (0-7, frees), Colm Moran (0-3). Subs: Joe Dawson for Maughan, John Gallagher for O’Brien, Matthew Macken for Conroy, Stephen McGreal for Moran, Sean Og Tigue for Horan (black card).
PS: Thanks to the Brother for the photo from Croke Park. I wasn’t there but got to see all the action live on TV.
PPS: Best of luck to the Ireland ladies hockey team in their World Cup final that’s about to get underway now.