It’s been a too-long wait and an itch we’ve been waiting to scratch since 2009 but this evening at a rain-sodden Markievicz Park – the same pitch where Tom Parsons lifted the JJ Fahy Cup the last time we won it, seven years ago – the wait for our 24th Connacht title finally came to an end. It was a close run thing but at the finish we ended the hopes of the defending champions Roscommon by a single point, winning by 1-11 to 1-10.
I wasn’t in Sligo this evening – U21 provincial championship matches have (with just one exception) remained stubbornly beyond my coverage map since the blog’s inception – but I was able to follow the action blow-by-blow on Midwest. And what action there was.
The treble-chasing Rossies sprang from the traps with intent. So much so that it looked like they had the title in the bag before our lads got going at all.
Senior player Diarmuid Murtagh was the man everyone was talking about in those opening minutes. 1-1 from him put the Rossies firmly in control and further scores from open play – points by Henry Walsh and Ronan Daly – saw the champions streak six clear with barely ten minutes played.
It sounded then as if another depressing U21 tanking at the hands of the Rossies was on the cards. A six-point deficit is a tough enough prospect to handle in a 60-minute game but to overcome this on a heavy pitch in wet conditions would be tougher still.
At least we staunched the bleeding at that stage. Fionan Duffy finally opened our account with a point from play after 11 minutes, though Ultan Harney responded in kind for them soon after. Eoin O’Donoghue came on for Eddie Doran as Liam Irwin pointed a free to cut the gap to five.
The Breaffy player – named to start at the last minute in place of Ciaran Harrison, with much consequential reshuffling to accommodate this switch – then banged over a ’45 to reduce the deficit to four. Just before then, however, it could have been game over when the Rossies, with an open goal at their mercy, somehow failed to rattle the net. It was a miss they’d later have cause to regret.
Not that any such thoughts were in their minds at that juncture. Diarmuid Murtagh – a constant menace in their forward line – brought his tally to 1-2 with another score from play and Ronan Daly stretched their lead back out to six with his second of the evening. That too came from open play: indeed, the Rossies’ entire 1-6 first half tally came from this source. Impressive stuff.
Just before the break, though, the defending champions suffered their first reversal. Senior panellist Sean Mullolly was ordered off on a black card and Conor Loftus stuck over the resultant free to leave five between the teams at the break.
Our prospects didn’t, it must be admitted, look all that hot at that stage. The common complaint I heard about our first half showing – both on Midwest and from my spies at the game – was that we were standing off the opposition, inviting them onto us. If we were to have any realistic hopes of winning this game, such diffidence would have to end.
From the sounds of it, it did. We came out after the break and, as Darragh Ó Sé might put it, we proceeded to horse into them.
Conor Loftus cut the deficit back to four from a free. At the other end, though, Murtagh came close to firing the Rossies further clear and but for Mattie Flanagan’s fingertips it could have been game over.
Instead, we were soon back to three behind as Fergal Boland shot over from long range. A third pointed free from Conor Loftus brought us closer still, the comeback now on in earnest.
It sounded then as if a legitimate point for Roscommon would be ruled out. Mattie Flanagan was forced to palm an inswinger over his bar but the umpires waved it wide. After consulting his linesman, though, the ref overruled the men in the white jackets and the Rossies were three to the good once more.
Brian Reape (from play) and Murtagh (a free, their first placed ball score of the evening) traded points but we then began to turn the screw. A long range free by Liam Irwin, followed by one from play by Fionan Duffy, cut the gap back to the bare minimum.
Into the final five minutes and we were now the team with all the momentum. Our progress was checked when Stack pointed for them but then we sent a long ball in towards their goal and Liam Irwin got a touch on it to direct it to the net. Now we were a point up with time rapidly running out.
The match was already in injury time when Murtagh, from a free, hauled the despairing champions level. Extra-time now loomed but Michael Plunkett had other ideas and it was the Ballintubber player who fired over the winner in the dying seconds.
I’ve been on the edge of my seat writing this second-hand account of the game so I can only guess what the atmosphere must have been like at Markievicz Park this evening. We appeared down and out before the first quarter was over but in the end produced a real grandstand finish to seal the deal and reclaim a long overdue U21 Connacht crown. Hearty congrats to Mike Solan and his wonderfully spirited bunch of players for doing the business in such dramatic fashion.
It doesn’t get any easier for the lads from here on either as they now go on to face Leinster champions Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final on April 16th. The Dubs had a major battle of their own earlier on today to get past Kildare in the Leinster decider and they only finally managed to do so after extra-time.
Dublin will be a tough proposition in the penultimate round but so too will our lads. This evening’s win should do wonders for their confidence and they can now proceed to the All-Ireland series with growing optimism about where this campaign might ultimately go for them.
Mayo: Mattie Flanagan; Eddie Doran, Seamus Cunniffe, David Kenny; Michael Hall, Stephen Coen, Sharoize Akram; Matthew Ruane, Diarmuid O’Connor; Fergal Boland (0-1), Conor Loftus (0-3, frees), Michael Plunkett (0-1); Liam Irwin (1-3, two frees and a ’45), Brian Reape (0-1), Fionan Duffy (0-2). Subs: Eoin O’Donoghue for Doran, James Carr for Loftus.