Our long reign as Connacht champions at U21 level ended at Hyde Park today when we were beaten by 2-9 to 1-11 by a resolute Roscommon side. I was there to see it all happen, as I’d accepted a last-minute offer of a lift down to Roscommon from The Brother who texted me a bit after one this afternoon to say he was heading down to it. Forty minutes or so later, myself and my small Dub met up with him and one of his lads at Liffey Valley and we all hit for the west together in his motor.
We made good time to Roscommon on virtually empty roads but a queue at the ticket booth meant that we missed the first few minutes of the day’s action and it was a point apiece by the time we’d located PJ up in the stand. Alan Freeman had got our opener and as we settled into our seats the lively Neill Douglas popped over our second from a free. A few minutes later he added another to put us two clear at the end of the first quarter.
The match already had the appearance of a dour struggle about it on what looked like a heavy pitch and our bright opening gave way to a period of home dominance after Donie Shine moved out to the middle. They kicked a bundle of wides – three in a row, I think it was – before they pulled level with two pointed frees. Neill Douglas restored our one-point advantage as half-time neared with this free but then the Rossies broke through for a goal, with Garvey feeding Kilroy who beat Rob Hennelly with ease from a one-on-one position. Douglas added his fourth of the day in reply – with an attempted effort at a goal that instead cannoned over the bar – to leave us a point adrift at the break.
They’d had whatever wind there was behind them in the first half and so we had every reason to think that we were in a good position at half-time, even though the lads were showing a similar lack of fluidity in their play as they had done – and which almost cost them dearly – against Leitrim in the first round.
The Rossies took forever to emerge from their dressing-room at half-time but once they did reappear they got down to business in no time with two quick points sending them three clear. Jason Doherty responded with a nice point from play and soon after the over-fussy ref sent Roscommon’s corner-forward Alan O’Hara to the line for a second yellow offence. It looked like a harsh decision but it also appeared to be one that would make it easier for us to see off the challenge of the sticky Sheepstealers.
Numerical advantage or not, it took us a while to reel them in but another point from Douglas and a lovely outside-of-the-boot effort from Shane Nally finally brought us level midway through the second half.
It looked then as if we’d be the ones to kick on but they broke through for their second goal of the day soon after to restore their three-point lead. It didn’t last long, though, as we got a goal back right from the kickout, with Alan Freeman the man rattling the net for us. Neill Douglas then knocked over a cracker of a free from well out on the right to push us a point clear with a bit over ten minutes to go.
Neither side looked capable of pushing for the line as the match entered its closing stages, with the home side looking like they didn’t have enough bite in the forwards to trouble us while we didn’t seem to have the drive to build on that slender one-point advantage. In a game as finely balanced as this, the decisive intervention of one stand-out player can often be what sways the final outcome and this was the case today.
That man was Roscommon’s Donie Shine and he made three crucial contributions to his side’s efforts in those closing minutes which, taken together, won the game for the fourteen-man Sheepstealers and brought our four-year reign as U21 Connacht champions to a close.
First, he pointed an absolute monster of a free, from at least 65 yards out and which still had plenty of distance on it as it sailed over the bar. That squared the match up and it was level again – following a final Douglas point for us that was cancelled out by a free for them after a particularly stupid foul by Kevin Keane committed well within scoring range – when the Clann na nGael man intervened with effect once more. Shine had the ball well out on the right but he spotted his centre-back Niall Daly unmarked in a good position right in front of the posts. An accurate fisted pass landed the ball right into Daly’s lap and the no.6 whacked it over to give the Rossies the lead with the match entering injury time.
There was still time for us to draw level, though this poorly-aimed free drew plenty of derisive cheers from the home supporters who now sensed that the day was going to be theirs. We kept plugging away, though, and eventually a chance opened up for skipper Kevin McLoughlin and he belted it over to square the match up once more.
Extra-time now seemed to be a racing certainty but this was when Donie Shine intervened a final time. He won the ball thirty or so yards out on the right and thumped over an emphatic winning point, a mighty roar erupting around the stand as the ball sailed over the posts at the graveyard end.
We can have no complaints at today’s result. The Rossies looked far, far hungrier for the win today than we did and when the game was in the mix in that closing period, they wanted it a whole load more than we did and despite being a man down, they fought like tigers to make sure that the prize would be theirs. Too many of our players looked jaded – Aidan O’Shea is clearly playing too much football at the minute and Kevin McLoughlin looked like he could do with a rest as well – and we seemed less organised and a good deal less focused on the job at hand than they did.
Best on the day for us were Neill Douglas (who ended up with seven points to his credit), Alan Freeman, Aidan O’Shea (who spent most of his time shoring up a midfield where Shane Nally looked badly miscast) and Eoghan Reilly but good individual performances aside, we never clicked today as a team and that meant we were always open to the kind of knockout blow that Donie Shine eventually landed on us deep into stoppage time. The Rossies now face Sligo – who pulled off a major shock win over Galway in the day’s other semi-final – in the U21 Connacht final over Easter. Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board for Ray Dempsey and his team on the sideline after a hugely disappointing and untimely end to an U21 championship campaign that seemed to promise so much at the outset.
MAYO: Robert Hennelly; Pat Mulchrone, Shane McHale, Kevin Keane; Lee Keegan, Eoghan Reilly, Sean Prendergast; Ger McDonagh, Shane Nally (0-1); Cathal Carolan, Kevin McLoughlin (0-1), Jason Doherty (0-1); Neill Douglas (0-7, three frees), Aidan O’Shea, Alan Freeman (1-1). Subs: Keith Rogers for Prendergast, Raymond Geraghty for Carolan, James Cafferty for Rogers.