Two enthralling contests, two county champions, two unfortunate losers. Last Saturday's double header county finals evening was a momentous occasion for all the clubs involved, a victorious evening for the footballers of The Neale and Ballintubber, not so memorable and heart breaking for Ballyhaunis and Ballaghadeereen players.
Unfortunately in finals there has to be losers. I have been on both sides of the fence on senior final day. Losing is not a nice place to be. When you win, you think things just can't get much better; when you lose, you want the ground to swallow you whole.
Both games were very enjoyable, nail-biting to the bitter end, especially the intermediate final that saw The Neale make history and win their first ever Mayo intermediate title. This game had me off my seat right throughout. Ballyhaunis looked comfortable in the opening half, like they could push on and win when they felt like it. Jason Coyne toyed with the Neale rearguard.
His quick free to full-back John Cunnane in the 16th minute set up the opening goal for the Ballyhaunis full-back, who also netted in their semi final victory. Ballyhaunis were in control and leading at the break by 1-05 to 0-4. They also got the opening score of the second half, pushing their lead out to five, but thereafter is where the game was won by The Neale. They upped their game and took Ballyhaunis for 1-6 on the spin to race into a three point lead themselves. It was an amazing turnaround on which you can only applaud The Neale for.
Sean Cosgrove and particularly Tommy Conroy, wreaked havoc in the Ballyhaunis defence. Conroy's goal was class, he burned his marker, Brian Hunt, before clinically dispatching Adrian Phillips. It was a brilliant finish. Ballyhaunis refused to roll over however and it was tit for tat thereafter, right to the final whistle. Ballyhaunis chased an equaliser as the game came to a close but they squandered possession late on and The Neale won the day.
They have now entered the history books as the 2019 intermediate football champions. There was euphoric scenes on the pitch afterwards as the stewards struggled to clear The Neale celebrating supporters off for the senior teams to make their entrance. One of Mayo's finest supporters in New York, Tony McTigue, made the long haul home from the Big Apple to support his beloved club. He was delighted he made the effort after the result. The party is just about over in The Neale, Cong and Cross I'd say. I'm told it was a good one. If I could offer any advice to The Neale before their Connacht championship gets under way, could they please get jerseys with clear visible numbers on the back so we can at least see them. I'm sure they're bothered?
The senior final hadn't as intense an ending as the intermediate final but it was fascinating and intriguing at the same time. Ballaghadeereen came out of the blocks fast, using their athleticism to great effect.
However Ballagh's ever-assured full backs, David Drake and Seamus Cuniffee, were struggling against Cillian O'Connor and Stephen O'Malley respectively. Both Ballintubber inside forwards took their markers for 0-3 from play over the duration of the game. Up the other end, Cormac Doohan and Andy Moran were causing trouble for the Ballintubber rearguard and when Doohan goaled in the 25th minute, it looked like Ballagh were on the verge of causing an upset.
However, worryingly for Ballagh' their semi-final hero - Ryan Lynch - who couldn't miss against Castlebar, hadn't his radar in sync this time, kicking some poor wides in the opening half. Games of this magnitude are sometimes swung on certain incidences, certain time frames. Ballagh' were four to the good as the game entered first half injury time. Some supporters were heading to beat the queues for the toilets. The four point lead was a fair reflection on proceedings, however in true Ballintubber fashion, the reigning champions dug deep to score 1-01 themselves in first half injury time.
The goal by Michael Plunket was a delightful finish as he side-stepped around Patrick Sharkey in the Ballagh' goal. These late scores would have changed the dynamic drastically in both dressing rooms at the interval. Ballagh' scratching their heads wondering why they weren't at least four to the good, Ballintubber delighted they had regained parity, while not playing to their potential.
Owen Jordan and Andy Moran tried their best to keep Ballagh's hopes alive but Cillian O'Connor wasn't in the mood for losing and nailed some critical second half scores. Alan Dillon was introduced by Kevin Johnson to steady the ship and duly obliged. What a substitute to have at such a crucial juncture in a big game.
Keelan McDonnell came off the bench also to help himself to two crucial points, the second of which was laid on a plate for him by Dillon. Ballintubber were deserving 1-14 to 1-11 winners and now go on to represent Mayo in the club championship, having won five senior championships in the last decade, which is some going. Congrats to them, that is a serious level of consistency.