A crowd of around 8,000 turned up at MacHale Park this evening to see the Senior and Intermediate club football finals, which were played out in incredibly mild late October weather under the lights in Castlebar. When the dust had settled on the two deciders it was the players and supporters of Belmullet and Ballintubber who went off into the near balmy night in high spirits, leaving those of Burrishoole and Breaffy disconsolate and defeated. Such is sport, folks.
At this late hour of the night, having spent the last number of hours on podcasting duties at MacHale Park, I’m not going to dwell at length on the two deciders but will instead sketch out briefly the essentials of what happened in each. Let’s take them in chronological order, starting with the curtain-raiser, the Intermediate final between Belmullet and Burrishoole.
This match – and the James Sweeney Cup – was won in the first half. Having started the game the brighter, Belmullet moved in for the kill swiftly when the chance presented itself midway through the half.
Johnny Donoghue had just landed a cracking point off his left when Burrishoole’s ‘keeper Paraic Holmes miscued his restart, ceding possession close to goal to the opposition. The ball was quickly transferred to Johnny Donoghue who found the net with ease. Just after that, captain Ryan O’Donoghue pointed to send his side seven clear.
The fatal blow came soon after when Johnny Donoghue was once again played in and, one-on-one with Paraic Walsh, was fouled by the ‘keeper in the square as he tried to round him. The ref played advantage, Donoghue wriggled clear and planted the ball into the corner of the net.
Burrishoole had only a solitary point on the board – which came from a Jason Doherty free – at half-time, by which time Belmullet had posted 2-6. The bonfires would surely have started blazing when news of that half-time scoreline filtered back to the Erris peninsula.
The real fear then was that Burrishoole were going to ship an almighty tanking. To their credit, though, they battled on bravely right throughout the second half and while they never got the gap down to the kind of margin that might make victory possible, they did at least manage to bring it back down to respectable levels.
Belmullet’s final point of the game came from James Kelly with a full twenty minutes left to play. By then Burrishoole had only scored three points but by the finish they added a further six, to cut the losing margin to seven points.
Belmullet won in the finish by 2-10 to 0-9. It’s a title win they’ll no doubt celebrate to the full and sure why wouldn’t they? The last time they won the IFC was way back in 1974 so this trophy is a long overdue one for them. Fair play to them.
The main event, by contrast, was a contest that went right down to the wire. There was little between Ballintubber and Breaffy all evening but the Abbeysiders always looked that bit more in control and, in the end, their greater experience and know-how saw them home by a single point, 0-12 to 1-8, in the tightest of finishes.
Breaffy got the dream start. Aidan O’Shea went in full-forward where he plucked a magnificent ball out of the night sky but was dragged down by Cathal Hallinan as he bore down on goal. The Ballintubber full-back was lucky to escape with just a yellow card – it could easily have been black – but Peter Dravins’ expertly converted penalty meant that Breaffy extracted full punishment on the scoreboard for the infraction.
Breaffy, though, failed to build on this early lead. Less than ten minutes later Ballintubber were back on terms, with Cillian O’Connor slotting over two frees, while Steven O’Malley and captain Damien Coleman bagged points from play.
Two further frees from Cillian pushed Ballintubber two clear but over the course of the second quarter all urgency seemed to vanish from the contest as both sides enjoyed long periods of possession with little or nothing to show for their efforts.
When Conor O’Shea landed a free from thirty yards – after Robbie Hennelly had earlier missed three long-range placed ball efforts – it was the first score for ten minutes and Breaffy’s first for twenty. It was also the final score of the first half, with Ballintubber retiring to the dressing room a point in front.
The game opened up a bit more after the break and the scores began to come with a bit more regularity. But such was the underlying caginess of the contest it wasn’t surprising that the first two second half scores came from placed balls. The first was a super long-range effort from Cillian while the next was an expertly converted ’45 from Robbie.
Alan Dillon – who put in a real virtuoso performance tonight – rolled back the years by posting a lovely point on the run. Then, after Tommy O’Reilly had responded for Breaffy, Cillian arrowed over an outrageously good point from play, as he twisted into a shooting position and let fly with venom from distance.
When the same player landed his seventh point of the evening – from another free, his sixth – with fifteen minutes to go, Ballintubber were once more two in front and starting to look like champions-elect. When Steven O’Malley restored that two-point cushion once again, with ten minutes now left on the clock, that feeling grew ever stronger.
But then two Conor O’Shea frees brought this match back level. Could Breaffy now push on and do it?
Five frantic minutes then passed, during which neither side were able to make further progress. In a game of such tight margins, it was going to take something special for one of them to claim the spoils.
That piece of magic came from Diarmuid O’Connor. He was a more subdued figure throughout this evening but when the chance fell to him thirty yards out, on the left, with normal time all but up, he swivelled and then shot off his left to land what proved to be a stunning title-winning point.
Breaffy attacked after that with increasing desperation as the five minutes of injury time ticked down. Deep in stoppage time Conor O’Shea undercooked an attempt at a point and as the ball dropped in the square Aidan O’Shea attempted to connect with it with his fist. Had he done so the ball would surely have ended in the net and it would have been the winning score but ‘keeper Brendan Walsh intercepted to clear his lines. Seconds later it was all over.
You’d need to have a heart of stone not to feel for Breaffy. That’s three finals they’ve now lost since 2013 and this one, in which they came so close, will surely hurt the most. It really is hard to lose.
Ballintubber, by contrast, will feel on top of the world tonight. Down and almost out both nights against Castlebar Mitchels, they battled back first to draw with and then, a week later, to dethrone the champions before grinding out the win tonight by the smallest of margins to claim the Moclair Cup.
Tonight’s win for them is the fourth Senior championship success in the club’s history, not bad going when you consider they only won their first one as recently as 2010. This one means that, like Mitchels, they now have four title wins this decade and tonight they are once more top dogs within the county. Huge congrats to them on their championship victory tonight.