The champions are gone. Castlebar Mitchels, winners of the Moclair Cup for the last three years, were sensationally edged out at the death tonight by Ballintubber in an extra-time edge-of-the-seat semi-final replay encounter at MacHale Park.
Like the drawn match seven nights ago, both sides had the chances to claim victory in this evening’s replay. Ballintubber, though, looked the better team throughout and they deserved the win, secured in dramatic fashion in extra-time stoppage time by substitute Joe Geraghty.
I watched this one myself from the comforts of home on Mayo GAA TV. The widespread broadband outage suffered by Eir this evening meant that the stream wasn’t up and running by the time the ball was thrown in and when we finally got it working the scores were tied at four points apiece.
Kevin Filan’s half-time summary on Mayo GAA TV confirmed that Castlebar had bagged the opening two points, only for Ballintubber to hit the champions with four points on the spin. Mitchels then responded with three scores in succession before a cracking one from play by Cillian O’Connor tied it up again.
Ballintubber were, like the last day, working like demons. They flooded their defence with bodies and then, in the Tyrone style, broke rapidly. One such move saw Cillian O’Connor direct a superb ball downfield to the unmarked Brian Walsh who turned and fired over.
Just before half-time it was the turn of the apprentice and the master to combine for the Tubbermen. Minor starlet Ciaran Gavin was the creator and the wily old fox that is Alan Dillon finished emphatically to send his side in two up at the break.
Scores were traded early in the second half – both teams notching one from play and one from a free – but then Mitchels upped the gas to score four on the trot and push two points clear.
Instrumental in this surge was the introduction of Neil Lydon who replaced a subdued Danny Kirby. Suddenly the champions were coming at the challengers in waves and, at last, were starting to find gaps in this meanest of backlines.
Anthony O’Boyle, from thirty yards out off the left, knocked over the first of these scores and a great ball in by Lydon to Neil Douglas made the second. Dougie hit a real rasper which only went narrowly over the bar. A few inches lower and it could have been a very different game.
Ballintubber nearly got a fortuitous goal soon after when Diarmuid O’Connor shot from distance but as Rory Byrne gathered he fumbled the ball and had to dive on it to prevent it squirting over his goal-line. Up at the other end soon after Paddy Durcan drove it over off the left after some patient build-up play.
Another well-worked move saw Shane Hopkins fire over. Two clear now and Mitchels looked like they had the winning post in sight. The sides then traded points from frees and with normal time up it seemed that the champions had done enough.
But the O’Connor boys did not concur. Diarmuid drove over a belter from play and then, with virtually the last kick of the game, Cillian guided over a free from an extremely acute angle out on the right. So, once again, it was extra-time.
Any thoughts that Castlebar’s depth and their experience would now tell were quickly disproved. Ray O’Malley’s night ended on a black card offence and Cillian drove the resultant free from fifty yards out over the bar.
Then Diarmuid took off on a gallop from midway. The defender shepherded him out to the left but it was off the left he let fly and bagged a super score to push his team two clear.
Neil Douglas then got bottled up in the swarming Ballintubber cover. I actually thought Dougie overcarried but the ref gave him the benefit of the doubt. The resultant free cut the gap back down to one.
Into the second period of extra-time now in this enthralling encounter and it began to look as if another replay would be needed to prise these great rivals apart. It was clear at this stage that it would take something special to seal it.
That X-Factor was produced by Jason Gibbons. He’d been quiet enough in normal time but in those frantic closing moments the big man made two surging interventions to set up the scores that finally saw the Tubbermen home.
The first one came after Jason claimed a great mark from a restart after David Stenson had missed a point-scoring opportunity from a free. As Ballintubber worked the ball up the field after this, Gibbons joined the line at speed and offloaded to Padraig O’Connor who fired it over.
But great champions don’t give way easily. Staring down the barrel, two in arrears with time running out, they hauled themselves level one last time. Dougie got both of these from frees, the second one an infuriating score from Ballintubber’s point of view, as Cillian O’Connor fouled Paddy Durcan off the ball and the free was then moved up for dissent.
In injury-time stoppage time Jason Gibbons timed his second extra-time surge to perfection. As he stormed forward he spotted the unmarked Joe Geraghty out on the right. The offload was perfect, the shot from the sub – a nephew of the great Ger Geraghty – wasn’t half bad either. It was more than that, of course, because it was the winner.
Huge congrats to Ballintubber. Over the course of the two games they looked close to going out but they showed enormous heart and courage to keep plugging away. They got their reward at the finish and fair play to them for that.
Commiserations to the Mitchels, whose drive for four county titles on the spin just came up short. They’ve been great champions the last three years and they battled right to the end tonight to preserve their crown but it just wasn’t to be.
What a final is now in prospect. Both teams will really fancy their chances and I’d say the decider – which is scheduled for this night week, throwing in at 8pm – will draw a bumper crowd to MacHale Park. If we get to see a contest then that’s anything like the engrossing one served up tonight it’ll be a decider to savour.