In early February last year, in conditions that were so bad you’d hesitate to put the dog outside, our U20s were eliminated from the Championship when they lost to Galway in a penalty shoot-out at MacHale Park. Tonight’s Connacht U20 semi-final at Tuam Stadium also went to penalties and so there was some grim symmetry in the fact that this time it was our lads who prevailed.
In truth, though, it should never have gone to that. As the game moved towards the end of normal time we were the dominant team but just couldn’t make that count on the scoreboard. Then, in extra-time, we owned the ball for large stretches but couldn’t break down the shawl the home side had spread out across their backline.
Had we lost it in the shootout, then, it would have been a rueful defeat. Penalties are in large part a lottery but our lads held their nerve that crucial bit more as the shoot-out went to sudden death to prevail 7-6.
I still haven’t calmed down after that shot of adrenalin and I was only watching it on TV via the Connacht GAA live stream. But there’s the story of a game to be told so let’s tell it.
The first half was a very cagey affair. Both sides sat deep, clogging up the central channel, waiting for the chance to break on the turnover. It didn’t make for a pretty half an hour of football.
At the break the home side led by three points to two. Galway scored first, Ultan O’Reilly replied for us and then Culhane from a free put them back in front before the water break. A Jack Mahon free levelled the contest before, on the stroke of half-time, Cooney hit a great score from distance after we’d gone long from the restart.
Both sides upped the pace in the second half and the game finally began to open up. Another Jack Mahon free, after a foul on Eoin Gilraine, drew us level but Monaghan scored for them right from the restart.
Culhane’s free from fifty yards out went wide off the upright but Gill, leading by example, raided forward to push Galway two in front.
We then hit three on the spin. Jack Carney got the first, after a super fetch inside by Jack Mahon. The Charlestown man followed this by knocking over a lovely score off the left. Frank Irwin then pointed from distance, the score prompting a throaty roar from the big Mayo support in attendance at St Jarlath’s Park.
Galway then hit two wides before we had a goal chance. Ruairi Keane made a barnstorming run upfield, offloading to Eoin Gilraine who saw his shot blocked by the ‘keeper.
Culhane claimed a mark and bagged a much-needed score for the home team, who had recorded three wides in succession before that. That left it level once more at the second water break.
A Culhane free put Galway back in front but Mayo had their tails up as the end of normal time approached. Sub Paddy Heneghan landed an inspirational score from out on the right wing and then a Connell Dempsey free, off the floor, put us back in front.
Galway levelled straight away and while there were no further scores before the end of normal time there was plenty of excitement, as the tension mounted all the while. Both sides had their chances but neither could take them and so the contest went to extra-time.
Galway grabbed the initiative straight away when the game restarted. I don’t see a whole load wrong with the tackle on the Galway forward but the ref – who, in fairness, was excellent throughout and who was far closer to the action than I was – did and he spread his arms for the penalty. Sub Grainger sent ‘keeper Ronan Connolly the wrong way from the spot.
We responded well to this blow. A pointed free from Connell Dempsey and a super effort from out on the left from Dylan Thornton brought the margin back to one. We were a man up now, as Galway had a player ordered off on a black card but we rushed a few chances to level it up before the half-time mark in extra-time.
We had a goal chance on the resumption as Conor Flynn, storming upfield, took possession and let fly but the goalkeeper pawed it away brilliantly. Connell Dempsey miscued the ’45 but Jack Mahon grabbed it and was promptly fouled. He got up and stuck the free over the bar to level it up.
The closing seconds were fierce and frantic. We lost both Conor Reid and Conor Dunleavy to black cards but Galway were unable to make their numerical advantage count and it finished level after extra-time.
So it was on to the travesty that is the GAA penalty shootout. Galway got first blood here as they won the toss to go first, making it that little bit more likely they’d prevail.
Grainger scored for them and Jack Mahon responded for us.
Gill and Connell Dempsey were both on target.
Culhane and Conor Flynn likewise.
Then Seoige missed but so too did Paddy Heneghan.
McLaughlin buried it leaving Cian McHale having to score to keep us in it, he was coolness personified as he did just that.
Gilraine again, Jack Mahon again, both on target.
Culhane and Connell Dempsey both converted.
Then Gill’s hesitant effort was saved by Ronan Connolly and Conor Flynn, having had to walk to the corner flag to retrieve the ball, strolled back pensively, put the ball on the spot and stuck it in the net.
Regardless of the result, penalties are still a rubbish way to settle a Championship match. It was rubbish last year and it was equally rubbish tonight.
But there was nothing rubbish about the spot kicks taken by those brave young men from both teams who took on the responsibility of settling this contest. The same goes for the two equally brave goalkeepers who faced them. Fair play to each and every one of them.
Commiserations too to Galway – we know from last year how cruel it is to get eliminated in a shootout. That defeat was tough for us to take and tonight’s one will be equally so for them.
So, after this close encounter with a sudden-death end, Maurice Sheridan’s team can now look forward to a Connacht final in a week’s time. That will be against either Roscommon or Sligo, who meet in the other semi-final tomorrow evening.
Mayo: Ronan Connolly; Seán Holmes, Ruairí Keane, Eoin Gilraine; Conor Flynn, Ryan Baynes, Aidan Cosgrove; Conor Dunleavy, Jack Carney (0-1); Ethan Henry, Owen McHale, Connell Demspey (0-2, frees); Ultan O’Reilly (0-1), Frank Irwin (0-1), Jack Mahon (0-4, three frees). Subs: Dylan Thornton (0-1) for O’Reilly, Paddy Heneghan (0-1) for McHale, Conor Reid for Gilraine, Cian McHale for Carney.