So it’s going to come to pass. Ever since both Castlebar and St. Vincents won their respective provincial titles before Christmas, I’ve been convinced that the two were on a Croke Park collision course and today’s All-Ireland semi-final results makes this a reality. I’m in Heaven, I’m in Hell: faced with the final where, regardless of the result, I can’t lose … or win for that matter either. It’ll make for an interesting Paddy’s Day for sure.
We were off the bus and settled into the lounge area of the Newry Shamrocks clubhouse shortly after the Mitchels/Crokes match had got underway this afternoon. The match in Portlaoise was tied at four points each at that stage but soon after we started watching it properly – on a oddly unfocused big screen – the incident that turned this contest on its head, the injury that forced the Gooch out of the contest, occurred.
No team could carry on unaffected after losing a player of this stature and I guess it was no coincidence that Castlebar took a firmer grip on proceedings once Cooper was sitting in the stand. They took a one-point lead into the break and then quickly extended that advantage to three after the restart. Then, despite ceding an enormous amount of possession to the Kerry lads for the next twenty minutes or so, Mitchels managed to keep their noses in front, mainly thanks to a Tom King goal that had come completely against the run of play.
That score had pushed Mitchels four ahead but soon the margin was right back to the minimum. It looked then as if Crokes would overhaul them down the closing stretch but instead it was the Mayo champs who found an extra gear, with points from Tom King (a free), Ger McDonagh, Aidan Walsh and Neil Lydon breaking the Killarney club’s resistance. An injury time goal from MOTM Patrick Durcan sealed a famous win for the Mitchels lads, as they cruised to the decider on a final scoreline of 3-13 to 1-11.
Soon after the final whistle had sounded in Portlaoise, we were taking our seats in Páirc Esler where St. Vincents were preparing to do battle with Ballinderry for the second slot at Croke Park on Paddy’s Day. By the time the ball was thrown in, the stand was pretty much full and despite the freezing conditions, there was a great atmosphere under the lights at the Newry venue.
Vincents seized control of this contest ten minutes in, with two goals in rapid succession. Mossy Quinn – who has turned in a succession of top drawer performances in this campaign and had another stormer this evening, scoring 1-8 – smashed in the first one and then made the second with a delicious defence-splitting pass to Ciaran Dorney who made no mistake from close range.
Six points up and rampant, Vincents should really have put the contest beyond Ballinderry’s reach by half-time but instead the Derry and Ulster champions put in a determined effort to cut the gap to a single point by the break, at which time the contest was still very much in the balance.
A significant factor in the Marino lads favour now, though, was that they had the quite stiff breeze at their backs on the resumption. Like Mitchels had done, Vincents began the second half brightly too, with three quick points opening clear daylight between the sides once more.
That gap widened back out to six at one stage before another Ballinderry comeback got underway. A goal for them cut Vincents’ lead back to two points but they never panicked and instead played their way out of this tight corner to win in the end by four, on a 2-14 to 1-13 scoreline.
So the stage is now set for what could be a classic All-Ireland club final at Croke Park on the National Holiday. Both sides have quality in abundance and both favour the same kind of attacking football. It could be a final to remember, even if, for me at least, the conflict of loyalties between club and county isn’t going to be at all easy to deal with on the day.