The Grand National may have produced one of the biggest upsets of all time this afternoon but it rarely looked as if Sligo were going to produce their own Mon Mome moment in today’s U21 Connacht final at Markievicz Park. Sligo may not have been priced as generously as the winner of the big one at Aintree but it would still have ranked as a major upset if they’d managed to prevent our lads completing the county’s third ever provincial four-in-a-row at this level. In the event, they never really put it up to our lads today, with the result that the champions cantered to a facile 12-point win, on a scoreline of 3-14 to 1-8.
I didn’t make it to Markievicz Park for today’s match – there was just too much on up here for me to countenance a trip west for this one – and I was out with the kids and their bikes and their scooters during the first half so there’s little I can say about the opening thirty minutes of play. PJ was there, however, and as well as providing the photo which shows Tom Parsons about to accept the JJ Fahy Cup after the match, he also kept me in the loop via a veritable stream of text messages. These were mainly notifications about Mayo scores as we raced into an early 0-8 to 0-3 lead, in the process threatening to end the game before it had really got going at all.
A penalty to the home team (correct call, said PJ) which was dispatched to the net cut the gap to two points but then a goal from Jason Doherty put us back in the driving seat once more. We led by six, 1-10 to 1-4, at the break and already it looked as if the title was as good as in the bag. That was PJ’s view on it, at any rate, and he was positively purring about how Tom Parsons and Aidan O’Shea had midfield all sewn up, a situation that was providing us with more than enough scoring chances. From what he had to say, it sounded as if we were going to win pulling up.
By now, I was back at base and tuned into the Mike and Billy Show on Midwest for the second half. Within 90 seconds of the restart, they had a second Mayo goal to talk about with this one created by Aidan O’Shea and finished by full-forward Neil Douglas. Now it really was game over. The young Magpies battled on gamely for the remainder of the match but there was never any chance that they’d be able to recover from that hammer blow. All the reward they got for their second-half efforts was four pointed frees, while our lads continued to tack on more and more scores from play. Deep in injury time, Mikey Sweeney flicked in a third goal, which the ref only allowed after first consulting with his linesmen.
A score of 3-14 is a decent one for a 60-minute game and the fact that 3-11 of this total came from play adds further lustre to the achievement. Sligo simply weren’t at the races today (that’s enough of the equine-related puns for one day, I think) and those hard matches the lads had against Galway and Roscommon were obviously of benefit to them today.
And so it’s now on to the All-Ireland semi-final, which is set to take place in a fortnight’s time. Our opponents in that one will be the Ulster champions but we won’t know until three days beforehand whether it’ll be Armagh or defending Ulster champions Down that we’ll be facing in the penultimate round, as the Ulster final isn’t scheduled to take place until the 14th of this month, with the All-Ireland semi-final then down for the 18th. In the other half of the draw, Cork have already come through Munster and they’ll play either Dublin or Laois (who face each other in the Leinster final tomorrow) in the All-Ireland semi-final. If it’s still of direct interest to us, the All-Ireland final is scheduled to take place on the 2nd of May.
I think there’s every chance we will still be in it at that stage and we should now really pull out all the stops to land our fifth national title at this level. When you think about it, we left both the minor and the U21 All-Irelands behind us last year and so winning this year’s U21 would be an excellent way to put those near misses behind us. This team – backboned by a mixture of last year’s minors and those from last year’s squad that are still eligible for U21 – is a talented group and they should fear no-one at this stage.
What’s really important now is that this team’s hunt for their All-Ireland is given top priority within the county over the coming few weeks. That means that Tom Parsons, Aidan O’Shea (who was named as MOTM today, by the way), Kevin McLoughlin, Donal Vaughan and Mikey Sweeney must be given the day off from the seniors next Sunday so that they can concentrate fully on the following weekend’s All-Ireland semi-final. Sure, we’ll miss them against Tyrone but we’ve got other options (Seamus O’Shea for Tom and Barry Moran for Aidan are the two obvious ones – Donal, Kevin and Mikey arguably wouldn’t be in the starting fifteen next Sunday anyway) and this is the time to use them. An U21 All-Ireland title would constitute the best possible lead-in to the summer campaign at senior level so we should do all we can to make sure we go on and win it.