With just eight minutes of normal time left in this evening’s Connacht U20 decider at Markievicz Park, we looked all but home and hosed. Frank Irwin had just stroked over a free to stretch our lead to five points and, with Sligo reduced to fourteen players, their hopes of a first ever provincial title at this level looked all but over.
Twelve or so mad minutes later, however, and Sligo were the Connacht champions. As had happened us in the semi-final against Leitrim – only this time fatally – the contest careered wildly out of control from our perspective and we conceded two shocking goals, to add to the two we’d already let in before the break.
Sligo only managed to post four points in the entire game but they bagged four goals as well and that was enough in the end to land them their first provincial U20 title. Huge congrats to them on what is in every sense an historic achievement for the Yeats County.
From our perspective, though, we have to see this as a Connacht title we let slip through our fingers. We had oodles of possession, enough to win two games, and while our cause wasn’t helped by those two first half goals, we battled back both times and in the final quarter looked to be well on our way to victory until that calamitous finish.
It was Sligo, however, who got the better start this evening. Two points, the first from a free and the second from a turned over restart, got them moving and eight minutes were on the clock before we opened our account, Jack Fallon landing a nice one from distance.
Rory Morrin levelled up the contest two minutes later. Cian O’Connell executed a nice rob and fed the Ballina man who belted it over.
Sligo’s opening goal was the next score. Jack Davitt was its instigator and finisher, collecting the ball out the right wing, playing a pop pass and taking the return at pace to bring him in on goal. He smashed it low and hard to the corner of the net.
We settled ourselves well, though, after that setback. Two good scores by Paddy Heneghan were followed by one from Frank Irwin – Paddy providing the assist – to square the game once more.
We then conceded a second goal, this one a bad one from our point of view. Jack Davitt did well to claim a raking pass played inside but we really should have been able to cut it out. Even when the Sligo danger man had the ball he still had plenty of work to do as we had bodies back but he calmly picked his spot and found the net for a second time.
Again we battled back. Points from Paddy Heneghan, Tom O’Flaherty and Frank Irwin (a free) hauled us level once more.
They went back ahead in rather bizarre fashion when an attempt at a point seemed to rebound off the crossbar but the umpires flagged the score. It seems goalie Bryan O’Flaherty punched the ball back out from behind the crossbar but on TV it was impossible to see the incident in that kind of detail. In any event, the score stood and Sligo took that one-point lead into the break.
The match became even cagier on the resumption. We owned the ball for long spells and were content to handpass it around, waiting for an opening, while Sligo were equally happy to sit deep and seek to catch us on the break.
Ten minutes passed before the first score of the second half. We won a charitable enough free when Paddy Heneghan collided with one of their players and Frank Irwin converted it to level the match once more.
A rapid downfield move soon after saw Frank Irwin provide a great assist for his Stephenites clubmate Rory Morrin whose point saw us lead for the first time in the contest.
Another ten minutes of cautious play ensued, with our lads still holding the bulk of the possession but with nothing further added to our tally. Sligo were still in it but surviving on proverbial scraps.
When Paddy Heneghan’s effort looped over the Sligo ‘keeper and landed in the net it looked like the breakthrough score. It was a total fluke from our perspective and a hammer blow for them but we could with some justification have felt that it was due recognition of our second half dominance.
When Sligo’s corner back Shane Molloy was harshly dismissed on a straight red for a challenge that would hardly have resulted in a yellow card at Senior level, the tide seemed to be going out rapidly on the Yeats County. Frank Irwin then nailed the resultant free to stretch the gap to five and we now had the scent of victory in our nostrils.
Only then the roof fell in on us. A bad mix-up in the Mayo rearguard allowed Eoghan Smith to grab possession and boot the ball to the net and then the same player landed a free from well out on the right to cut the gap to one.
We tried to take the sting out of Sligo’s resurgent challenge by playing keep ball and we even added to our tally, with sub Niall Treacy notching a good score. Three minutes to go and now two up, we still looked the likelier winners.
But then we conceded a fourth goal, this one proving fatal for us. There was no real danger when Sligo captain Jack Lavin let fly from fifty yards out but somehow no-one was able to cut it out and this speculative effort ended in the net.
That was the game’s final score. We still had time to mount a few more attacks but these all broke down before we even got a shot away as the jubilant Sligo lads held on for a famous victory, winning it in the end by 4-4 to 1-12.
This is underage football so there’s no point going overboard about the manner of our defeat. Many people, myself included, weren’t overly enamoured with our ultra-cautious playing style under Maurice Sheridan but, you know, had we won tonight I doubt any of us would have been complaining.
Instead, it’s best to end by saluting Sligo once more on their historic breakthrough provincial title win at U20 level and to wish them the best in the All-Ireland Series. They’ll know this was one they won against the head but will, I’m sure, treasure it all the more as a result. And more power to them too.
Mayo: Bryan O’Flaherty; Alfie Morrison, Ruairí Keane, Conal Dawson; Fenton Kelly, Donnacha McHugh, Aiden Cosgrove; Frank Irwin (0-4, three frees), Jack Fallon (0-1); Tom O’Flaherty (0-1), Dylan Thornton, Seán Morahan; Rory Morrin (0-2), Paddy Heneghan (1-3), Cian O’Connell. Subs: Bob Tuohy for Dawson, Cian MacHale (Bohola Moy Davitts) for O’Connell, Niall Treacy (0-1) for Fallon, Conor Reid for Morrin.