We’ve had two very short U21 championship campaigns the last two years and for a good while in tonight’s Connacht championship preliminary round clash with reigning All-Ireland U21 champions Galway at McHale Park it looked as if we were heading for an unenviable three-in-a-row in this respect. But then a strong finish to the second half saw the game go into extra-time and we were stronger still over the additional 20 minutes, where we eventually got the better of the champions on a 1-14 to 0-15 scoreline.
Needless to say, I wasn’t in McHale Park tonight. (The photo credits – and my thanks for same – once again go to Mayo Mick and also to Katrina Brennan). In fact, I wasn’t even able to get near the radio (well, to be more precise, the laptop) before the end of the first half as I had my own Gaelic football commitments – helping out with U8 football training at the club – to attend to this evening.
From what PJ (who was there) had to say, however, it sounded like we had a storming start – where we raced into a 1-2 to 0-1 lead, with the goal coming from Conor O’Shea – but then we lost our way completely. Galway racked up six points before we got another score ourselves, a pointed free from Cillian O’Connor, and they added another point after that to reach the halfway stage two in front.
The visitors continued to dominate after the break too, as they stretched their lead to four points but poor shooting – a failing that eventually proved their undoing, as they shot 11 or 12 wides over the course of the night – prevented them opening up what might have been an unbridgeable gap. Instead, points for us by Darren Coen – now operating in the half-forward line –and Evan Regan (a free) cut the deficit to two.
Ó Gríofa and Cillian (from a free) then traded points before another free from Cillian and another from play by Darren Coen hauled us level. The lads on Midwest were now reckoning that we were the more likely to prevail and when Danny Kirby set up Cillian for a point from play with just five minutes left on the clock, it sounded like they had called it right.
Rabbitte cancelled that one out almost straight away but then Cillian nailed another free to edge us ahead again with normal time almost up. Defeat at that stage would have been cruel for the young Tribesmen but Varley then nabbed a deserved equaliser to send the tie into extra-time.
Billy Fitz on Midwest predicted that scores would prove to be thin on the ground over the course of the twenty minutes of extra-time. That was certainly the case in the first period of extra-time where the only white flag came as a result of yet another free from Cillian.
We could have had our second green flag of the night, though, in that period when Danny Kirby found himself a toe-poke away from having the ball in the net. This time, however, the 2012 Four Goal skewed his shot wide of the posts (photo: Katrina Brennan).
The two sides upped the ante again in the second period of additional time as, like tiring heavyweights, both of them did what they could to land a knockout blow. Ó Gríofa pointed just after the restart to level things up but then Evan Regan from well out on the left restored our slender lead. Monaghan in turn cancelled that one out.
Then ref Michael Duffy whistled the Galway lads up for a foul handpass coming out of defence. It was well within Cillian’s range and he duly knocked it over to edge us back in front. Then, with time once more running out, Danny Kirby was fouled as he charged in on goal and Cillian landed his ninth point of the night to secure the hard-fought two-point win.
Beating the reigning All-Ireland champions in any tournament has to rank as a good night’s work and there’ll be a fair deal of satisfaction in the Mayo camp at having dethroned the Tribesmen in a match that looked for a time to be well beyond us. It’s hard to know why we were so disjointed early one but the way we lined out at the start – more evidence, perhaps, of Ray Dempsey’s rather quixotic approach to team selection – could well have something to do with it.
Whatever it was, the lads certainly recovered well to dig out the result and the win will undoubtedly give them plenty of confidence ahead of the Connacht semi-final with Roscommon. That one, incidentally, is scheduled for Kiltoom this night week with a 7.30pm throw-in and I’d say the lads can expect another tough battle then.
Mayo: Paul Mannion; Michael Walsh, Niall Freeman, David Gavin; Caolan Crowe, Shane McDermott, Michael Forde (0-1); Danny Kirby, Danny Geraghty; Andrew Farrell, Aidan Walsh, Conor O’Shea (1-0); Evan Regan (0-2, one free), Cillian O’Connor (0-9, seven frees), Darren Coen (0-2). Subs: James Shaughnessy for Farrell, Brendan Harrison for Gavin, Conor Walsh for Coen (ET), Austin O’Toole for Shaughnessy (ET).