This is a piece I wrote for the online edition of this week’s Mayo News.
The Newry Shamrocks’ clubhouse sits cheek-by-jowl with Páirc Esler – it’s to the Newry venue what An Sportlann is to MacHale Park, and as the Mitchels/ Dr. Crokes semi-final entered its decisive closing spell, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was Castlebar you were in, such were the lusty roars that arose every time Mitchels drove another nail in the coffin carrying Crokes’ hopes of making it to the stadium that bears their name for next month’s All-Ireland club final.
We’d arrived at Páirc Esler, having come up from the capital on one of the buses laid on by St Vincents, with almost two hours still to go until the day’s second All-Ireland club semi-final was due to throw in. That left plenty of time to catch the action from Portlaoise, and we were taking our seats in the lounge area of the Shamrocks’ clubhouse when, on the big screen, we could see that ‘The Gooch’ was down and didn’t look like getting back up anytime soon.
We were the first bus to arrive and so had our pick of where to sit to watch the action from O’Moore Park on television, but by the time the Mitchels game entered its final ten minutes, the place was absolutely heaving. Not only was everyone there shouting for the Mayo lads – it’ll be a long time before a team from Kerry manages to hoover up neutral support from any other part of the country – but to add to the confusion, almost everyone there was decked out in blue and white, the colours of Ballinderry as well as of St Vincents.
As I shepherded my young lad – who, like his two big sisters, plays underage for the Marino club – out through the throng after the final whistle had gone in Portlaoise, I asked a few of the Derry lads about what sort of a team they had. “A nice, wee, tidy team,” I was told and we agreed that the veracity of this assertion would be tested soon enough.
The light was fading and the floodlights were on as we took our seats in the fast-filling stand at Páirc Esler. With a biting wind whipping down off the hills, I was glad of all those extra layers I’d decided to wear, but the Vincents followers weren’t thinking of the cold as they watched their team scorch the northern lads with two goals inside the opening quarter.
The first came from Mossy Quinn, Vincents’ standout player on this club championship run. His Dublin playing days now behind him, Mossy has instead morphed into the complete club player – always in the right place to receive possession and never a man to waste it when he gets it.
The goal he scored was a cracking one, gathering possession 20 or so yards out and squeezing his shot low and hard into the corner, but his sublime cross-field pass that set up the second, blasted home by Ciaran Dorney, was worth the trip north alone.
That put the Marino lads in the driving seat, but they were unable to build on their early dominance and instead allowed Ballinderry back to within a point of them at the break. With the wind behind them in the second half, though, Vincents forged ahead again early in the second half and once more it looked as if they might win at their ease.
A hallmark of this Vincents’ run – and one that’ll give Mitchels plenty of hope in the final – has, however, been their inability to close out matches with efficiency. And it happened again in Newry, when a Ballinderry goal sparked a revival that almost caught the Dublin champions at the death. But, to their credit, Vincents never panicked and instead played their way out of this tight corner to win by four.
Saturday’s two semi-final results sets up what is potentially a cracking All-Ireland final between two teams who favour an open and attacking style of play. Mitchels will once again take the field as underdogs, but having repeatedly made a mockery of this tag on every outing they’ve made since capturing the Moclair Cup, they’re unlikely to be fazed by having to do so again in the final. Since capturing their first Dublin title in seven years last October, Vincents have had the mantle of favourites thrust on them at every turn. It’ll be no different for them in the final but Mitchels will, I reckon, represent a considerable step up on anything they’ve faced to date. This is a decider that really could go either way.