Like the Seniors last Sunday, the county’s U20 Connacht campaign this year lasted just the length of a single match. Unlike the Seniors, though, at U20 level the Connacht Championship is straight knockout and so this evening’s 0-17 to 1-9 defeat to an impressive Sligo outfit means the end of the road for them.
This match was meant to be played at MacHale Park but was switched today to the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence pitch at Bekan. Last year’s U20s prevailed over Galway at the same venue in similarly wet and windy conditions but this evening the current year’s crop – still managed by Maurice Sheridan – were comprehensively outclassed by a well-drilled, hard-working and talented Sligo team.
Dara Hurley bagged the game’s opening score but a foretaste of what was to come came after Sligo had levelled. They put on a full press and turned our restart over twice in succession, bagging points on both occasions to lead by two.
We hit back well, though, with Bob Tuohy landing a nice score from distance and then Fenton Kelly palmed to the net to put us two points clear. Bob Tuohy curled over a cracking score after that, the ball swirling in from the right and over.
Sligo had a bit of a let-off soon after when, in our next attack, Conal Dawson shot from out on the left wing, the ball dipping rapidly as Tom O’Flaherty and the Sligo ‘keeper both rushed to meet it. It ended up going over the bar but the leather could just as easily have ended in the net.
Three up, we looked to be taking control of the game but then, all of a sudden, fortunes shifted strongly in Sligo’s favour. They got a hold around the middle and, by a combination of hard, off-the-shoulder running, cleverly executed handpasses (which, unlike ours, went forward) and precise shooting, they proceeded to turn a three-point deficit into a two-point half-time lead.
By then we’d lost Seán Morahan to the sin bin for ten minutes and his absence was to prove extremely costly to us early in the second half. Now with their tails up, the Magpies came at us in waves, banging over a succession of points to put the game beyond our reach.
Seven points without reply in this spell saw Sligo stretch their lead by nine. On the rare occasions we broke out, our transition to attack was way too slow, our handpasses still all lateral, and Sligo – like the Rossies last Sunday – guarded the D as if their young lives depended on it.
It was only when the result was beyond doubt that we finally began to find our range but the four unanswered points we got to close out the game were all no more than consolation scores. These points – three from Fenton Kelly and one from sub Ryan Fadden – cut Sligo’s victory margin to five points but it was a margin of defeat that flattered us. In every other sense, this was a hammering.
So, that’s it for the county at U20 level this year. Sligo, the defending Connacht champions who beat Roscommon last week before accounting for us tonight, now go on to face Galway in next week’s final. On tonight’s evidence, they looked well placed to secure back-to-back provincial titles at this level.