For the first time in four weekends, there’s no senior NFL match this Sunday (I did warn you in advance that March would be mad, didn’t I?) but it’s still a big weekend for the county football-wise as the U21s are taking on Sligo in the Connacht final this Saturday at Markievicz Park (throw-in 5 pm). Having already, and in such dramatic fashion, accounted for Galway and Roscommon on the way to this provincial final, one would almost be forgiven for thinking that Saturday’s decider – against a Sligo team that had, by contrast, only to get past Leitrim to reach the final – can only go one way. That’s certainly what Paddy Power thinks will happen and, with us having racked up 21 provincial titles at this level (as well as four All-Irelands) since the inception of the U21 level in 1964 compared to none for the Yeats County, you can see where the money men are coming from.
Now is not the time to be complacent, however, as the Magpies have a decent enough U21 record in recent years, beating Galway in the first round last year and then leading the Rossies well at half-time in the semi-final before succumbing to a second-half fightback in that one. If we think this one is in the bag before we take the pitch then we could be in for a shock but somehow I can’t see the Holmes/Connelly/Collins axis (I could only unearth a photo of the first of that trio) letting that happen.
Three U21 provincial titles and one All-Ireland victory is an impressive haul for the sideline junta and sending out teams that are well-prepared has been a hallmark of the HCC reign. Also, as Anthony Hennigan points out in his preview of the match in the Western, our team contains lads with far more experience than they can muster, with five of our lads having lined out for the seniors in this year’s league and with six (Aidan O’Shea featuring in both of these sub-sets) having played in the minor All-Ireland last year. Given that lot, you’d have to think that we’ll have sufficient firepower where it matters to complete the four-in-a-row on Saturday evening.
Anthony also notes in that piece that this is the third time we’re aiming for a provincial four-in-a-row at U21 level, having previously completed the feat in 1973-6 and again in 1983-6. During both of those earlier foursomes, we also won All-Irelands (in 1974 and 1983) and, of course, we already have the 2006 national crown in the bag arising from this run of success. In relation to the latter, my fellow Mayo GAA blogger, There is a light that never goes out, has a superb piece of analysis on the Class of 2006, which shows how well this contingent of All-Ireland winners have progressed through to the senior ranks.
Assuming we do win on Saturday, by the way, we won’t have Tyrone to worry about in the All-Ireland semi-final: they lost by a goal in last night’s U21 Ulster semi-final to defending champions Down. The Mournemen now face Armagh – who had seven points to spare over Donegal in last night’s other semi-final – in the provincial decider up in Nordie land. From what I can see, neither ourselves nor Down have too many survivors from our All-Ireland minor final meeting in 2005 at U21 level this year: on our side, there’s just Mikey Sweeney and at their end it looks like it’s just the midfielder Fitzpatrick. That’s no surprise, as you’d expect that most of that year’s minors would now be too old for U21 and, looking through our line-up from that forgettable day, this certainly seems to be the case.