At half-time in today’s minor semi-final against Down at Croke Park, our prospects looked about as bleak as the outlook for the afternoon’s weather. We had been comprehensively outplayed in that opening 30 minutes and we were damn lucky to be going in only two points adrift. We had been beaten up a stick at midfield, we had failed to win virtually every one of our kickouts and the meagre amount of ball we had got had been hoofed cluelessly inside where 100% of it was gobbled up by the Down backs. We had scored just a single point from play – which came midway through the half from the boot of Darren Coen – and but for the excellent free-taking of team captain Aidan Walsh, who scored from four placed balls in that first half and ended up with six pointed frees to his credit, we’d have been further behind at the break. Indeed, had it not been for the tigerish defending our backs had done throughout that opening half, Down would have had at least a goal on the board at that stage and, had this happened, it’s difficult to see how we would have found a way back into the contest.
At that point, when the Rounders exhibition match was underway out on the hallowed turf, it looked as if the match could end as a contest fairly soon. However, had the Brother and I then encountered a soothsayer in the lower Cusack spinning a tale about how the match would cant decisively in our favour within seven minutes of the restart, we’d have taken him gently by the arms and deposited him in the care of the Croke Park stewards imparting, as we did so, our advice that said seer needed to spend a while in a facility bordered by high walls.
But, of course, that’s exactly what happened (the way the match turned, not our meeting with some prophesying wizard lad) when Ballintubber’s Cillian O’Connor imposed himself decisively on proceedings by scoring two goals inside three minutes shortly after the resumption. The first arrived after Aidan Walsh had landed his fifth free of the day just after the restart and it came when the Ballintubber man won a race with the Down keeper for a ball that had been booted forward into the danger zone. He flicked it coolly past James Deeny and the ball rolled gently into the corner of the net to put us two points ahead.
We were still coming to terms with being to the fore in a match where we’d looked decidedly second-best up till then when O’Connor pounced again. He first won the ball and fed sub Jack McDonnell whose effort rebounded out to O’Connor who calmly gathered it and smashed it into the net, thwarting the efforts of the Down keeper and corner-back Darragh O’Hanlon who dived towards each other in a vain attempt to intercept the goalbound leather. Sweet Lord and His Holy Mother, we were now five up and starting to look, well, like winners, that’s what.
The next ten minutes were crucial because – as we saw with the seniors against Meath in the quarters and as we’ve witnessed so many other times in the past – it’s often the case that a team is at its most vulnerable when it thinks it has just won the Lotto and it has started to plan about how best to spend all that nouveau largesse when some fecker on the opposing team comes along and does the equivalent of letting you know that that 6 you thought you had was really a 9 and suddenly all your riches are gone. That was a long metaphor, I know, but so too was the period (seven minutes) between Cillian’s second goal and the game’s next score and, even more importantly, this score was another one for us, in the shape of a point from play by Alex Corduff, which stretched our lead to two clear goals.
Indeed, a full ten minutes had elapsed between the time that Cillian’s second rocket hit the net and Down finally got a score on the board, their first of the second half. But then another five minutes went by and John Carney, who had just replaced Alex Corduff, scored this point from play to push us back to six ahead with only nine minutes to go. This close-in free from Aidan Walsh, which was replied to in kind by a late Down free, closed out the game’s scoring in what the records will show was a comfortable enough six-point victory for us. And, especially for those of you who for whatever reason couldn’t make it to HQ today, this was how the match ended:
While we’re on the topic of on-the-spot atmospherics, here’s the post-match audio report I did while the chisellers were savouring our success by getting stuck into the Magnums.
In analysing how that second half unfolded, it must, of course, be noted that Down had plenty of chances to claw their way back into the game but they made the fatal error of trying to do so solely by scoring goals. They repeatedly eschewed opportunities to pick off points and instead kept trying to work themselves into a position where they could shoot for goal. But, just as we’d done in the first half, our backs were more than happy to soak up this pressure and even when Down did manage to breach our backline they found our keeper, Kiltimagh’s Michael Schlingermann, in truly superb form. One stop in particular, which came with around eight minutes to go when a goal for them would have halved our two-goal advantage and have given us a decidedly nervous final few minutes, was out of the top drawer and it ensured that, when the end did come, it would do so with our lads well ahead. Schlingermann was definitely my Man of the Match today.
Apart from him, Aidan Walsh’s dead-eye free-taking was, just like it was last year, a pure joy to behold. Any team that fouls us within fifty yards of their goal is going to know all about it and the fact that Aidan’s six points corresponds exactly to our margin of victory shows just how important the captain’s contribution to our winning total was today.
So too was Cillian O’Connor’s explosive three minutes early in the second half. The Ballintubber dangerman hardly saw the ball in the first half and didn’t see a whole pile more of it either after netting his two-goal haul but his intervention was more than enough to alter the course of the game entirely in our favour. If he does the same in the final, we won’t complain.
Oh yes: the final. We’ll be able to keep ourselves in check over the next three weeks by telling ourselves that today’s performance (by which we’ll mean our first half effort) wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to beat Armagh in the final. That may be true but what we can be sure of is that, ragged and all as it was, today’s showing was more than good enough to see off Down and so book our place in the minor final for the second year in a row. Armagh will be a totally different game but I doubt very much that what we saw today will have much bearing on how we perform against the Ulster champions on All-Ireland final day.
And won’t it be great, assuming the ticket hunt is successful, to be there once again at HQ on All-Ireland day? So often, we hear from people who hail from counties who never get to experience seeing their team in action in Croke Park on this annual Day of Days that our lot as supporters is a “long suffering” one. Sure, we’ve had plenty of heartbreak on All-Ireland final days in the past but all those losses are already gone from us and every new final we get to offers us a fresh chance to claim an All-Ireland title. What Mayo supporter would not want to be there at Croke Park to see this happen? I for one will leave no stone unturned to make sure I’m there on September the 20th in case this one is the day when our luck in All-Ireland finals at last starts to turn.