You’d need to have a heart of stone not to feel sorry for Down who had victory snatched away from them deep in stoppage time in this afternoon’s U21 All-Ireland final at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise (Setanta’s match report here). Our semi-final conquerors had done well to overturn a three-point half-time deficit – in that opening half, playing against a stiff wind, they’d shown precious little of the lethal accuracy in front of the posts that they’d shown us in spades at Longford in the penultimate round – and when their captain Timmy Hanna banged in their second goal with six minutes to go, a second All-Ireland U21 title appeared to be in the bag for the Mourne County.
Poor old Timmy must surely have been rehearsing his victory speech with his side two points up as the match went into injury time but Cork came at the Ulster champions with one last desperate attack. The Mourne County’s backline buckled, allowing Cork’s centre-back Aidan Walsh to open up a clear shooting chance twenty yards out. Down’s keeper Gavin Joyce batted away Walsh’s fierce drive but there was no defensive cover there to hoover up the ball and instead Colm O’Driscoll pounced to ram it home and clinch a one-point win for the young Rebels.
It was a cracking match, especially the second half where two talented teams defied the worsening weather conditions to produce a real ding-dong championship decider, where the advantage swung back and forth a number of times before O’Driscoll’s late, late strike. The game was a marvellous advert for the U21 championship, a grade that often produces football of a quality rarely seen at senior level and where the kind of cynicism that is now so engrained in senior football is still refreshingly absent.
Neither team really deserved to lose today but, just as you have to sympathise with the Mourne lads, you have to admire the way Cork kept plugging away right to the end, an approach which eventually yielded them their second U21 All-Ireland title in three years and their eleventh in all. And, just to make it even sweeter for them, they’re now one ahead of Kerry in the roll of honour at this level. One can almost hear the resultant grinding of teeth in the South-West: oh the hurt, oh the hunger …