Well, that was fun. Not good for the heart, perhaps, but definitely of positive benefit to the soul. As a county we’ve come out on the wrong side of more than our fair share of closely-fought classics over the years so it felt very sweet to emerge from this one on the right side. The happy side, the sloppy grin side, the I wonder where the final will be played? side.
Today’s U21 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin at O’Connor Park in Tullamore – am I not right? Isn’t it a small gem of a venue? – was the first I got to see of this team in the flesh. I had, of course, heard all about their never-say-die attitude, which they’d demonstrated so forcefully in relieving Roscommon of their U21 Connacht title a few weeks back, and was eagerly looking forward to seeing them for myself.
We made it into the ground just prior to the 2.45 pm throw-in and as we settled into our seats in the stand the lads settled nicely into this contest. Very nicely in fact because after just eleven minutes we were 1-4 to 0-0 in front.
All of this opening barrage came from play. Fergal Boland clipped over our opener after two minutes and Fionan Duffy pointed the second. Then Diarmuid O’Connor got on the end of a through ball from Liam Irwin and fisted it past the stranded Dublin keeper. Two more points – from Stephen Coen and Shairoze Akram – followed within a minute to complete a dream opening for us.
It would have been great had we built on this and put the result beyond doubt before the break. At that stage we looked stronger all over the field, winning every individual battle, and Dublin looked more than a little at sea.
Instead we reached half-time with a six-point lead, 1-7 to 0-4, following a second quarter where we’d allowed the Leinster champions to find their feet in the contest. True, it took them 29 minutes to register their first score from play but they’d pointed three frees before this. The three points we’d added to our opening barrage came from Diarmuid O’Connor, following a blistering upfield run, and two frees from Conor Loftus.
Still, a six-point cushion at the break left us in a great position. What we needed to do now was continue to exert the same dominance on proceedings after the break and our place in the final would be assured.
Dublin had, though, other ideas. They turned the contest completely on its head in the third quarter, during which time we utterly lost our way. All of a sudden, those warm and cosy thoughts about an All-Ireland final appearance started to give way to dark mutterings about the slump to defeat that seemed to be unfolding.
It took the Dubs just ten minutes to haul themselves level. They’d outscored us by four points to one (our one coming from Liam Irwin) when they broke through for the equalising goal, booted to the net by their main dangerman Con O’Callaghan.
For the next ten minutes, we looked completely shell-shocked. Midfield went to pieces for us, their runners cut through us at will and we had difficulty getting the ball past the half-way line.
With ten minutes left on the clock we were four in arrears and looking like a beaten side. At that stage it was 1-13 to 1-9: we’d added a point, from Fergal Boland, but that was only our second point of the half whereas they’d tacked on 1-9 since the break. That ten-point turnaround looked to be decisive then.
But that’s where the lads’ indomitable will-to-win began to kick in. James Carr’s introduction added a bit of extra zip up front and driven forward by the likes of Stephen Coen, Shairoze Akram and the peerless Diarmuid O’Connor, this fascinating battle began to turn again.
Liam Irwin knocked over two frees to halve the deficit facing us. Between those scores, though, came the worst of a series of cack-handed refereeing decisions by Fermanagh official Niall Cullen when Diarmuid was felled as he bore down on goal but was instead incredibly penalised himself for overcarrying.
But the lads’ dander was now decidedly up and the big Mayo support at last found its voice too as we all suddenly woke up to the reality of the grandstand finish that was now in prospect. They’d snatched the fat from the fire against the Rossies: could they do it again against the Dubs?
James Carr was next to be hauled down as he charged forward. This time the ref did award the free and Liam Irwin once more pointed to cut the gap down to just one.
The Breaffy player – fouled as he tried to get the shot away? – missed a chance to square the match but Matthew Ruane stormed forward soon after and blasted over the leveller on the run off his left.
Into injury-time and Colm Basquel – the Ballyboden player with Westport roots – pointed at the other end to put Dublin back in front. Funnily enough, though, this late, late score never felt like the winner and our lads clearly didn’t think so either as they continued to pour forward at the other end.
A Conor Loftus free brought the match back to stalemate and with extra-time now beckoning we launched one final attack. This ended with Diarmuid getting dragged down within scoring range and once again Conor Loftus was unerring with the free. This one really did have the look and feel of the winning score about it:
— Mayo GAA Blog (@MayoGAABlog) April 16, 2016
Dublin did get the chance to restart but the ball never made it as far as half-way before the ref blew the full-time whistle. 1-15 to 1-14 it finished, a result that sees us into our first U21 All-Ireland final in ten years.
That 2006 decider was against Cork in Ennis and the bulk of the team that won the All-Ireland for us that day went on to form the backbone of the senior team that has represented us with such distinction in the years since then. That group was a special one and with every match this U21 team plays they’re showing hints of exceptional quality too.
On they now march to an All-Ireland final showdown, which will be held this day fortnight, possibly in Ennis, where they’ll get the chance to write their own piece of history. Although Cork have been installed by the bookies as 8/15 favourites to win the thing out, it’d be a brave person who’d write our lads off at this stage.
Mayo: Matthew Flanagan; Eoin O’Donoghue, Seamus Cunniffe, David Kenny; Michael Plunkett, Michael Hall, Sharoize Akram (0-1); Matthew Ruane (0-1), Stephe Coen (0-1); Fergal Boland (0-2), Conor Loftus (0-4, frees), Diarmuid O’Connor (1-1); Liam Irwin (0-04, three frees), Fionan Duffy (0-1), Brian Reape. Subs: Eddie Doran for Cunniffe, James Carr for Duffy, James Kelly for Plunkett.