Mayo’s U20s are through to the Connacht final – where they’ll face Sligo – but what was, midway through the second half, heading towards a routine, unspectacular victory veered off in a very different direction, with the result that we only emerged victors over Leitrim by a single point. We eventually scraped through this evening’s semi-final on a scoreline of 0-16 to 2-9.
From the midway point in the second half Leitrim outscored us by an astonishing 2-5 to 0-1, paring what was then an eleven-point deficit right down to just a single point. But they’d left it too late – by the time they netted their second goal from a penalty (a soft award, in truth), the time was up and the final whistle sounded as soon as the ball was kicked out.
At half-time few would have foreseen the mad scramble that ensued in the final quarter. At that stage we were eights points to three ahead and this looked to be an extremely untroubled assignment for Maurice Sheridan’s team.
His side had performed well in that opening half. When we had the ball, we tended to keep it – all those handpasses weren’t easy on the eye but it was an approach that ensured we retained possession – and, when they had it, we defended in numbers and were tigerish in the turnovers. Time and again, Leitrim came up against a backline that held firm, turned them over and attacked at pace.
We got the game’s first three scores. Frees from Frank Irwin and Cian MacHale were followed by a nice one from play by Tom O’Flaherty from distance.
They opened their account on eleven minutes, McKiernan clipping it over from an acute angle off the left. We responded immediately, Cian O’Connell, fed by Frank Irwin, firing over to restore our three-point advantage. Donnacha McHugh, off his left, following a good upfield burst by Sam Callinan, pushed us four clear.
After Leitrim pulled one back, McLoughlin smashing over from nearly 45 metres out, Sam Callinan went on a surging run up the other end, did a give-and-go, and fired over.
Our next score summed up our tactics in that first half. We won a great turnover on the Leitrim ’45, Paddy Heneghan pouncing on the loose ball and then feeding Frank Irwin who pointed to stretch our lead to five. A soft enough free for us, converted by Cian MacHale, upped our lead to six.
It was then that Sam Callinan got injured. He intercepted a loose pass and drove clear but then, with no-one around him, he collapsed to the turf. It looked for all the world like a hamstring pull and that obviously was the end of his involvement in the game and, perhaps, this U20 campaign too.
Although it wasn’t apparent at the time, Sam’s departure clearly had an unsettling impact on us. Our backline was never as solid after he went off and we also missed his offensive contribution further up the pitch.
Early in the second half, though, we seemed to have no worries about seeing out the game. Leitrim’s McGreal was black carded for a third man challenge shortly after the resumption and, for a time, it looked like we were going to break through for a goal or two.
We nearly got a fluky goal, when Fintan Kelly’s attempt at a point dipped late on and came back off the crossbar, and then Paddy Heneghan cut through their backline but his effort produced a good save from their ‘keeper. Leitrim were living dangerously then.
The home team had got the opening score of the half but in that third quarter we added seven points without reply, a scoring burst that seemed to put the game to bed. Frank Irwin got four of those (three frees and a superbly struck ’45, followed by another free) and Paddy Heneghan got one. I couldn’t make out who got the other one.
That pushed us a full eleven points clear but, from then to the finish, it was one-way traffic in the other direction. We’d run the bench far too soon and we looked disjointed and more than a little panic-stricken as a suddenly rejuvenated Leitrim went for us.
Their opening salvo was three points on the spin but when Dylan Thornton boomed over a great score at the other end, that seemed to settle us once more. After all, with less than ten minutes of normal time to play we were still nine points to the good.
But then they got their first goal. A lofted ball into the square was met by the gangly Quinn who got his paws to it and batted it to the net. Two more points flew over our bar after that and now, with the match in injury time, we were looking increasingly desperate as we sought to hold out.
The last-second penalty award to Leitrim was hugely generous, as McGreal drove into his man and fell over. Casey’s spot kick was top class, low and hard into the corner to cut the gap to one. But it was all for naught, as the time was up and the whistle sounded as soon as the ball was kicked out.
The drama in Carrick was, if anything, overshadowed by the high-octane ending to the Sligo/Roscommon semi-final. That one was tight from first to last but the Yeats lads won it with a dramatic long-range score in injury time and so it’s them we face in the Connacht final this night week.
Sligo are the only county not to win a Connacht U20 title (the old U21 grade) but you’d have to think they’ll fancy their chances against us next week. After the high of beating a fancied Galway in such dreadful weather in Bekan last week, tonight’s near-miss with disaster against Leitrim will have brought Maurice Sheridan’s charges down to earth with a bit of a bump.
That said, however, this is knockout football and Mayo are still in this Championship, now with a great chance to claim our first Connacht title at this grade since 2018. It’s going to make for a fascinating provincial decider in a week’s time.
Mayo: Bryan O’Flaherty; Alfie Morrison, Ruairí Keane, Conal Dawson; Fintan Kelly, Sam Callinan (0-1), Aidan Cosgrove; C Dawson; Frank Irwin (0-6, four frees and a ’45), Donnacha McHugh (0-1); Tom O’Flaherty (0-1), Dylan Thornton (0-1), Seán Morahan; Cian MacHale (0-2), Paddy Heneghan (0-1), Cian O’Connell (0-3, two frees).
Subs: Paul Walsh for MacHale, Niall Treacy for Callinan, Bob Tuohy for Dawson, Mark Cunningham for O’Connell, Conor Reid for Keane.
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