Stuff not related to football meant that I was going to be on home soil this weekend so this afternoon I took advantage of the opportunity and the good weather to head for McHale Park to see the two county semi-finals. Plenty of others did the same too as there was a healthy turnout in Castlebar for the double-header, which resulted in two very different kinds of contests.
PJ and myself were a bit late pitching up at the county ground today and the Mitchels were 1-2 to 0-1 up on Knockmore by the time we took our seats in the stand. I’ve no idea who got their goal (I was told it was a scrambled effort and that there might have been a few claimants for the honour) but what was obvious when we joined the action was that the local side were well on top and looking likely to claim their first final appearance in a good while.
Knockmore hit back, though, with Trevor Howley helping to drive them forward from out around the middle and they went in just two points behind at the break in a contest that hadn’t really come to life at that stage. The early part of the second half wasn’t a whole load better either but Castlebar – missing the injured Tom Cunniffe from their line-up but looking to have a nice balance of experienced campaigners and younger talent – seemed to have more going for them and when they pulled four clear with points from Neil Douglas, Aidan Walsh and Barry Moran, it looked like curtains for Knockmore. Big Bazza could indeed have ended the contest altogether when he caught a high ball in (the only one he caught all day) and had only the ‘keeper to beat but instead of going for the goal, decided to palm the ball tamely over the bar.
Knockmore still looked goners but a determined eleventh-hour burst saw them storm right back into it and four late points made the draw seems the likeliest outcome. But then sub Kevin Filan nabbed a neat point for the Mitchels from out on the right and this was soon followed up by a cracking score from fifty or so yards out by full-back Richie Feeney. That turned out to be the winner, with Kevin O’Neill’s last-second free going over for a worthless consolation score as the ref called time once the ball was kicked out after it.
Peter Forde’s lads looked happy to have made it to the final and they then had the luxury of sitting back and seeing who it was they’d be facing. They didn’t have to wait long to find out as Ballintubber blew Shrule-Glencorrib completely out of the water at the start of the second game. Leading 1-5 to 0-0 after 15 minutes, the game was as good as over, with James Horan’s well-drilled side cutting the South Mayo lads to pieces. Jason Gibbons got the goal, with his persistence rewarded when the ball came back to him after his first effort had been beaten out and he drilled it into the net at the second time of asking.
Eight points down at half-time, Shrule-Glencorrib needed to get scores on the board quickly after the resumption but time and again they found they simply couldn’t penetrate the well organised Ballintubber defence. Conor Mortimer and Mark Ronaldson saw plenty of the ball but weren’t able to do a whole load with it and Trevor Mort had an afternoon that was similar to a number of days that followers of the county team don’t need reminding about.
Ballintubber had been full of menace going forward in the first half but the second period was all about resolute defending, so much so, in fact, that the game was entering injury time before they got their first (and last) score of the second half, an effort from play courtesy of Alan Plunkett. In fact, that was the final score of the afternoon altogether, with Kenneth Mortimer’s charges ending the day with only a very bare looking six points to their credit.
Is this Ballintubber’s first ever senior final? I don’t have the Big Boy’s Book of Mayo GAA Club Results to hand so I’m guessing it is but, even if it’s not, today’s result will still go down as quite an achievement for a club that was plying its trade at intermediate not too awful long ago. The Mitchels will, I suppose be favourites to claim the Moclair Cup, but they’ll need to maintain their concentration for a bit longer than they did today if they’re to do it.
My favourite activity at club matches is the game of ‘spot the inter-county player’, as, to my mind, a guy who has been turning out for the county should look like a county player in more modest company such as this. Trevor Howley, Kevin McLoughlin (in flashes), Neil Douglas, Alan Dillon (aside from his freetaking) and Mark Ronaldson caught the eye in this respect but the likes of Barry Moran, Aidan Kilcoyne, Trevor Mortimer and Kieran Conroy didn’t exactly excel in the kind of surroundings you’d think they would.
Another interesting pastime at such games is to try to identify players who you think could and should be county material. Ballintubber’s Jason Gibbons was the standout candidate in this respect (he’s clearly mutated from boy to man since the last time I saw him play) and I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t start to feature at county level in 2011. Others who might also was Castlebar’s gutsy Richie Feeney, Knockmore’s excellent Shane McHale, while Aidan Walsh (whom I hope is continuing to practice his freetaking) also showed glimpses of his minor level form.
But the other man to catch the eye today was, of course, James Horan who has now successfully steered his unfancied club all the way to the senior county final. As a lead-in to his impending interview for the job of Mayo manager, today’s performance by his charges is likely to have done him no harm at all. Sure, maybe it’s all stitched up by now, maybe we are standing on the cusp of the Tommy Lyons era but maybe, just maybe, today’s events have breathed some new life into the search for a new Mayo manager. Regardless of how that particular process plays out, though, today provided another bit of proof in support of the proposition that James Horan is a man who could, sooner or later (and hopefully the former), have a big part to play in reviving the county’s footballing fortunes.