At the start of the summer you’d have got decent odds on Knockmore lifting the Moclair Cup this year. Indeed, as late as the quarter-final stage they were only one of six clubs with serious ambitions to lift the title. Tonight, however, they stand alone – they’re county champions for the first time since 1997, with this afternoon’s two-point victory over Breaffy landing them their ninth Senior crown.
It was a strange final in many ways. Knockmore won on a day when their talisman Kevin McLoughlin was far less prominent than of late, in a game where they went scoreless from the tenth minute of the first half until three minutes into the second.
Knockmore looked very vulnerable at half-time and you’d have been forgiven for assuming then that Breaffy’s far greater big game experience would prove decisive. Not a bit of it. When Knockmore finally sparked shortly after the break there was no stopping them and when they’d amassed what proved to be a title-winning score they defended it like demons ’till the end.
Knockmore’s passage to this year’s final has been aided by an ability to start games strongly. They did so again today, putting 1-1 on the board before Breaffy got going at all.
Keith Ruttledge posted the opener and the goal, on seven minutes, was a Peter Naughton/Darren McHale combination effort. Naughton, such an intelligent operator who plays all the time with his head up, spotted his team-mate as he bore down on goal and McHale dived to meet the pass and punch it to the net.
Breaffy looked momentarily rocked but not for long and they were back on level terms shortly after the water break. Colm Flynn bagged their opening score and, after Peter Naughton replied for Knockmore (a point that proved to be their final one of the half), scores from Matthew Ruane, Tommy O’Reilly (two frees) and Conor O’Shea hauled Breaffy level.
Now it was the turn of the North Mayo lads to look a bit rattled. Aidan Orme’s missed effort after Breaffy’s leveller was their fifth wide of the half and Darren McHale screwed another one awry a few minutes later.
By then Breaffy had hit the front. Mattie Ruane cut inside and curled a delicious shot over the bar and he then turned provider, feeding Tommy O’Reilly who, with a goal chance on, blazed the ball over.
The TG4 coverage now came on so the laptop, on which I’d been watching the YouTube stream, could be put away. On the TV the pictures showed Aidan Orme getting a black card for dragging down Seamus O’Shea. Knockmore now looked in real bother.
Breaffy should have extracted punishment with the one-man advantage, a ten-minute period that straddled the break. But they didn’t – they led by two when Orme was sent to the sin-bin but that lead was down to one by the time he came back on.
By now Darren McHale had started to clear his throat. He bagged their first score since the 10th minute shortly after the resumption, replying to a Breaffy score right after the throw-in, a solo effort from Aidan O’Shea.
McHale then followed up with a cracking strike off his left from out on the left. With Orme back on and Knockmore now over their mini-wobble, this final suddenly took on a very different complexion.
Peter Naughton claimed a forward mark and was unerring from the dead ball, the score levelling the contest. It didn’t stay level for long, though, as Tommy O’Reilly shot smartly from an Aidan O’Shea pass to put his side back in front.
Another Naughton/McHale combo effort squared it up before Keith Ruttledge, pouncing on a loose ball after a messy passage of play in the middle of the field, scampered forward and fired it over. Darren McHale – a man on fire now – found himself unmarked and in possession well within range. You can guess the rest.
Another Tommy O’Reilly free cut the gap back to one but at the second water break it was Breaffy who were now the team with questions to answer. A match they looked well in control of was now threatening to slip its moorings. Could they deploy their greater experience or was Heartbreak 4.0 on the way for them?
We got our answer soon enough. Aidan Orme, fed by Darren McHale, pushed Knockmore two ahead. Then sub Kieran Langan fired over from distance into the bacon factory end. The winning post now in sight, the North Mayo lads were upping the gears and hitting for home.
A booming Robbie Hennelly free, from well the far side of the ’45, sailed over to cut the gap back to two. But then Breffy were penalised a bit harshly down the other end and the free was moved up for dissent, leaving Aidan Orme with the simple task of tapping it over.
Tommy O’Reilly, so reliable from dead balls all day, then shanked a free from a good position wide. I think that may have been the moment that the horror of what was about to happen dawned on the Breaffy lads.
But they weren’t going to go down without a fight. Seamie O’Shea burst forward, lost the ball and won it back before feeding Mattie Ruane who clipped it over. At the other end, though, Peter Naughton curled over an absolute peach of a score, one that really had the appearance of the grace note.
It was – that one was the winners’ final score. Six minutes of injury time were called and the ref played a further minute on top of that. Breaffy tried to break through Knockmore’s defence with a series of short handpasses but these moves repeatedly broke down, as the deep-lying rearguard of the champions-elect held firm.
A Conor O’Shea free in stoppage time was the day’s final score. When the final whistle sounded Knockmore were the champions on a scoreline of 1-12 to 0-13.
What an achievement this is for Ray Dempsey and his young charges. There’s no question that they’re deserving winners of the Moclair Cup this year, given that – as Ray’s old team-mate John Casey pointed out afterwards – they took out champions Ballintubber, fancied Ballina Stephenites and now Breaffy to land the spoils.
With their age profile, it’s tempting to think too that this could be the start of a run of success for Knockmore. Tonight, though, it’s best to park those thoughts and let Ray and his team celebrate this one on its own merits.
What can you say about Breaffy? Today’s defeat brings to four the number of county final losses they’ve suffered in just eight years. For Aidan and Seamie O’Shea, those four defeats stand in macabre symmetry with the four All-Ireland defeats they’ve also had to endure at inter-county level within the last decade. For players who have given so much to club and county that’s simply heartbreaking.
As they say, however, history is written by the winners. Today those doing the writing were a tenacious and hard-working Knockmore team whose performances this summer have capped what’s been a hugely entertaining Mayo Senior football Championship. More power to them.