Semi-finals are, as the saying goes, for winning. And that’s what Mayo’s Minors did today at O’Connor Park in Tullamore, as they got the better of Kerry by 1-8 to 0-9 in the All-Ireland MFC semi-final.
It was an extremely nervy encounter, which was understandable given all that was at stakes for both sets of young players. This meant loads of mistakes, unforced errors, misplaced passes and plenty of wides but what it also meant was an hour and more of hugely honest endeavour from both sides.
In the end, it was our lads who did enough to advance to a first Tom Markham Cup decider since we last won it (as an U18 competition) back in 2013. In the final we’ll meet Galway, a team we’ve already beaten twice in this competition but who, by virtue of victories since over Dublin and today over Derry, battled back to make it to the final.
A novel decider that will be, as it’ll be the first ever all-Connacht All-Ireland final to be contested. Our lads, by virtue of their seven-match unbeaten run to the decider, will be the favourites but that’s unlikely to count for much when the ball is thrown in at Croke Park.
But back to today’s win, a victory we probably should have secured easier than we did but which in the end we saw out in what was a tough, low scoring contest.
Kerry looked the more assured team for much of the first half. They owned the ball for long stretches and were confident in possession, repeatedly offloading the ball to players coming at pace, as they pushed us back and forced us on the defensive time and again.
We got the day’s opening score – a free from Colm Keaveney – but they scored three on the bounce during that spell when they pretty much owned the ball.
This game wasn’t the first one where we were slow to get the scoreboard moving – as I recall, the evening we hosed Galway in the group stage, it was the second quarter before we got motoring – and that’s what happened today too.
Our twin dangermen, Ronan Clarke and Niall Hurley, were both being marked tightly but these lads don’t need a second invite when chances come their way. On the 17th minute, opportunity came knocking for Ronan Clarke, who gathered a free in from Diarmuid Duffy and the Moy Davitts man stuck it in the net.
Kerry responded immediately. They were level within seconds and then tacked on two further points, one of which could easily have been a goal but for a superb save by ‘keeper David Dolan who deflected the ball over the bar. That was just the first of three separate goal-saving interventions by the Balla netminder.
They lost a player to a black card seven minutes before the break and we soon began to profit from the extra space we now had. Points from Ronan Clarke (a free), Dara Hurley, Jack Keane (a real monster score hoisted up into the tricky wind) and James Maheady in that spell saw us go in two points to the good.
From early in the second half we looked the likelier to prevail but it was then that the error count rose sharply. We had a number of chances to open them up as we broke from defence but repeatedly coughed the ball up and allowed them to counter.
It was then, though, that our defence stood tall. John MacGonagle and, in particular, Lorcan Silke were superb at the back for us and, of course, those saves that David Dolan pulled off were, literally, the difference between winning and losing.
We got the first score of the second half, a free from Ronan Clarke after the same player was fouled. That put us three in front and that was the margin we maintained for most of an increasingly frantic second period.
Kerry cut the gap to two on 40 minutes but we responded immediately, Colm Keaveney knocking over a nice point from play.
Another Ronan Clarke free, this time for a foul on James Maheady just outside the square, stretched our lead to four. The way to the final was now, it seemed, starting to open up for us.
We didn’t score again after that, though, but despite soaking up plenty of Kerry pressure, they only added two further points to their tally as we edged it by two points at the finish.
So, for the first time in nine years, we’re back in a Minor decider. That’s a long gap between finals for us but we will, by virtue of our unbeaten run to the final, be favourites to seal the deal. That said, it’s a derby final and it could, as we well know, go either way.
But it’s great to be in it and great too that this bunch of players, who have shown such promise right through this campaign, now get the chance to shoot for the stars. Well done to them today and here’s hoping they can now go on and finish the job.
Mayo: David Dolan; Rio Mortimer, John MacGonagle, Lorcan Silke; Liam Maloney, Colm McHale, Paul Gilmore; Jack Keane (0-1), Luke Feeney; James Maheady (0-1), Dara Hurley (0-1), Diarmuid Duffy; Cathal Keaveney (0-2, one free), Ronan Clarke (1-3, three frees), Niall Hurley. Subs: Oliver Armstrong for Keane, Zac Collins for Maheady, Seán O’Dowd for Gilmore, Oisín Cronin for Dara Hurley, Adam Boukioud for McHale.
Our ‘Final Whistle’ podcast for club members on Patreon is online now. Rob and I are on it from O’Connor Park and there’s also post-match reaction from Mayo manager Seán Deane and goalkeeper David Dolan. Join the club here.