So, it truly was Mayo Day. And what an evening it was at Cusack Park in Ennis, one where the county’s U21 team swept to All-Ireland victory thanks to a five-goal haul that saw them beat Cork on a scoreline of 5-7 to 1-14. They did so in front of a raucous, partisan Mayo crowd – who made up all but a few hundred of the 7,467 attendance at Cusack Park this evening – a crowd who roared the team home to a truly memorable All-Ireland victory.
We made it to the ground a bit under an hour ahead of the 6pm throw-in but by then the stand was almost full, with more and more punters – every single one of them, it seemed, from our camp – arriving with each passing minute. It was obvious even then that Cusack Park would, indeed, be a home from home for us this evening and that’s exactly what happened.
Cork struck the first blow by way of a pointed free within the first minute of play but we settled into the contest quickly enough once Michael Plunkett raided forward to bang over the equaliser. We hit the front for the first time when Matthew Ruane finished a storming downfield run by knocking over a glorious score.
Already we had a grip around the middle but although we did briefly pull two points clear – after Cork had equalised, we responded with two, one from a Conor Loftus free and the second from play by Michael Plunkett – we failed to take several other chances that came our way.
We hit a succession of quite poor wides, most of them from unpressurised shots, and this wastage with the wind behind us in the first half had an ominous feel to it.
In contrast, Cork’s attacks were a model of efficiency. Every time they got within range they scored and as half-time approached, our two-point lead had mutated into a three-point deficit. Our wide count had hit eight at this stage.
We were still three points down when the announcement was made that there would be three minutes of added time at the end of the half. By the time the teams trooped off the field, though, the contest had been turned on its head by an explosive 2-1 scoring burst from our lads.
The first goal was created initially by a piece of wonderful persistence by Sharoize Akram. Bursting forward, he lost control of the ball but chased his marker down and somehow regained possession out near the corner flag. A neat interchange of soccer-style passing then ensued before Michael Plunkett got it and laid it into the path of Diarmuid O’Connor who appeared like an express train to palm the ball to the net.
Liam Irwin added a free to put us a point up and then the Breaffy player smashed home a sensational second injury-time goal for us. Fergal Boland – busy and influential all evening – turned the ball over out the field and it eventually ended up with Michael Plunkett who was was once again the goal provider. He fed Liam who swivelled and let fly off his left, the goal shooting us four clear at half-way.
The job was far from done, however, as Cork would now have the stiff wind at their backs and we’d need a more consistent supply of scores at the other end. Or so we thought.
Cork came at us with intent on the resumption. Two points within three minutes halved our lead but our nerves were steadied somewhat when Liam Irwin boomed over a ’45 for our first score of the half.
Cork responded with a point but we then hit them with another hammer blow. A rapid attack saw the ball fed to Conor Loftus whose rasping shot came off the underside of the crossbar and into the net. Five up now and, perhaps for the first time in this contest, glory was unquestioningly beckoning for us.
When Cork’s Seán White was black-carded soon after for a crude and utterly stupid foul on Stephen Coen – whom he caught around the neck and pulled to the ground – it looked like their composure was going. If we could continue to drive on, the cup would surely be ours.
But suddenly the contest swung the other way. A slightly undercooked ’45 for them made it as far as full-forward Kelleher who met it with a punch to route it to the corner of the net, cutting our lead back to two points. Two minutes later, they converted a close-in free and our lead was back down to the minimum.
Once again Conor Loftus steadied us, this time with a pointed free, but Hurley banged over a long ranger straight away after. Cork got the next score too, another free, and now with just six minutes remaining it was once again all square.
I have to confess I didn’t think we’d do it from there. All the momentum appeared to be with Cork and the script appeared to be written as another story of All-Ireland final heartbreak for us.
But these lads don’t do heartbreak. This is the group of players who’d stared down the barrel in both the Connacht final and the All-Ireland semi-final and had come with a barnstorming finish to win both games. And come they did again this evening … and how.
Liam Irwin had a chance to put us ahead with three minutes to go but his shot tailed off wide. From the kick-out, though, Conor Loftus intercepted and gleefully dispatched the leather to the net. The Mayo support erupted as one, a wall of noise reverberating around this luckiest of venues for us, as it began to dawn on us that we’d just struck a mortal blow on them.
But there was better to come and it came in the shape of Liam Irwin. He got onto a long angled ball pumped in over the cover that he batted almost nonchalantly beyond the reach of the Cork goalie. Into the net it trickled and once more an uproarious clamour ensued from all around the ground.
In the midst of a hurricane, there’s a deathly calm in its eye and it was there that I resided for those final coruscating moments of this All-Ireland final. There were four minutes of injury time and they’re four minutes I’ll treasure for as long as I live because for all that time I could see with certainty that this time, this Mayo team of heroes, were about to be crowned All-Ireland champions.
I wanted it to end yet I also wanted it to go on forever. I watched the seconds of broken time (as they used to term it back in the Fifties) rack up, I drank in the joy of the huge, cacophonous Mayo support all around me.
Cork had one last attack and they ended up winning a ’45. Which they pointed and then, suddenly, it was over. And we could at last add this team and their achievement to those that went before them. 1967, 1974, 1983, 2006, 2016. All-Ireland U21 champions.
There was only one place to get to now and that was out onto the pitch. And there I hoisted my young lad – my road-trip soulmate, since last year 100% a Mayo supporter – onto my shoulders and he captured on my iPhone this video clip of Stephen Coen becoming the fifth Mayo captain to take possession of the Clarke Cup. What a moment that was:
— Mayo GAA Blog (@MayoGAABlog) April 30, 2016
And how lovely it was to spend time afterwards meeting people – so many people, all of whom you’d gladly stay and talk for hours with, if only there was the time to do it – and taking in the realisation that this time the big day was ours. This time we came in flying our flags and we went out flying them too. This time we won. We won.
Some teams have a winning feel about them and after this evening’s stunning All-Ireland victory we can safely ascribe that quality to this U21 team. They’re not a side without shortcomings but their will to win was little short of breathtaking. Most of them tasted All-Ireland success at minor level two years ago and now they’ve picked up a second All-Ireland medal at U21. These lads are winners, pure and simple.
I always bridle at the notion put about by those outside the county that we, those who support the Mayo footballers, are some kind of long-suffering tribe. We’re not, you know – we have great days following teams in the Green and Red, teams of players who continually shoot for the stars. We don’t always make it there but this evening in Ennis we did and, boy, does it feel sweet tonight. Yes, this truly was Mayo Day.
Mayo: Matthew Flanagan; Eoin O’Donoghue, Seamus Cunniffe, David Kenny; Sharoize Akram, James Kelly, Michael Hall; Matthew Ruane (0-1), Stephen Coen; Fergal Boland, Conor Loftus (2-2, two frees), Diarmuid O’Connor (1-0); Liam Irwin (2-2, one free and one ’45), Fionan Duffy, Michael Plunkett (0-2). Subs: James Carr for F Duffy, Barry Duffy for Kelly, Morgan Lyons for Plunkett.