Final four places decided after feast of football

GAA: Mayo GAA Football Championships

The weather may have been foul at times, but the football was nothing less than ferocious last weekend.

The quarter-finals of the Mayo GAA Senior Football Championship has long been one of the top weekends in the football calendar and it did not disappoint last weekend once again.

Two very nail-biting contests on Saturday in the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence in Bekan where Knockmore and Westport edged out their opponents, were followed up by a day where the changing of the guard was a big talking point, following wins by Belmullet and Garrymore on Sunday afternoon.

Things got under way on Saturday with the meeting of Westport and Ballina Stephenites, Westport - the coming club and Ballina the old dogs on their way back with a new and youthful side of their own. The predictions were that Westport should win this one, which they did, but they were made to work right till the death by a Stephenites side, who will feel they could and should have won it - after they threw everything at the Covies.

Ballina were behind for less than a minute in the entire contest, but unfortunately for them it was the final minute after Fionn McDonagh put Westport in front for the first time in the game. Ballina had the wind in the first half and they plundered the only goal of the game when Luke Doherty fired home 13 minutes in, they led by three at the break and will probably look back with regret at trying to see out the game too early when the final few minutes came along.

Colm Moran kicked some absolutely brilliant points for Westport in the second half as they reeled in Ballina, while Alan Kennedy finished up with six to his name - they also dealt with the loss of Kevin Keane early on, with Killian Kilkelly giving Ger Cafferkey a different threat to think about, while they were also able to bring in Mark Moran and Oisin McLaughlin off the bench to give their drive an added boost.

Ballina will have plenty to take from this going on, Sam Callinan was outstanding, putting in a showing that belied his age, Conor McStay jinked and jived his way out of the clutches of Westport defenders on numerous occasions. There was also plenty of entertainment, when Padraig O'Hora and Lee Keegan came into contact with each other, to the crowd's satisfaction.

If the starter was anything to go by, the main course on Saturday promised to be something else worth savouring - and was it ever. The closing minutes of this one will live long in the memory. Ballintubber down to 14 men and three points down to the defending champions Knockmore, get a free on the edge of the penalty area. With time ticking down, they have no choice but to go for it. Diarmuid O'Connor has a crack at it, it's blocked by the mass of bodies on the line and looks to be away to safety.

But referee Declan Corcoran spreads his arms and awards a penalty for encroaching by the Knockmore defenders. Another chance for O'Connor to send the game into extra-time and also see his side go back up to 15 for it. Standing on the line is Ryan McDonnell, the substitute Knockmore goalkeeper, who had come in to replace the ill Colm Reape in the middle of the game. O'Connor fires it to the left hand side, McDonnell springs to his right it and saves the ball - and Knockmore are safe and into the final four. The kind of script you'd see in a children's movie, not at the end of a ferocious battle between two heavyweights of the game in the county.

The north Mayo men were deserving winners, despite all the drama - they played the better football for long periods and, not alone dealing with the loss of Reape mid game, they also lost their ace attacker, Darren McHale, early in the first half. Ballintubber of course were without Cillian O'Connor - but Stephen O'Malley put in a very good showing in the full forward position in his absence and finished up with five points. Ballintubber will also rue that they should have stopped both goals Knockmore got, with the ball slipping through a defender's hands before it ended up with Peter Naughton who found Aidan Orme and finished to the net; and Naughton's goal in the second half came from a free that dropped short and Frank Walsh let it slip through his fingers and into the net.

On Sunday lunchtime anyone that thought that Belmullet had got lucky in their win over Knockmore in the group stages was put in their place by the side's performance against Breaffy in Ballina. That's both of last year's finalists now beaten by Knockmore in the championship this year by Damien Mulligan's men.

Ryan O'Donoghue was the man whose magic feet won the day in a low-scoring encounter. With the game in the balance in the third quarter, he won a long diagonal ball in from Mikie Barrett, showed the fleet footwork of a ballerina to turn in a tight spot and then deftly lifted the ball over Rob Hennelly, scraping it into the net off the underside of the bar.

It was a vital score, coming just after Breaffy had missed a goal chance of their own, having pulled themselves level after going behind to Fionnan Ryan's goal early in the second half. Belmullet came with a plan and stuck at it, while Breaffy were unable to get their own plan going with any regularity and Belmullet were deserving winners at the end and will have no fear of what is coming up next for them in the semi-finals.

The final game in the senior championship quarter finals was the meeting of Garrymore and Castlebar Mitchels - it's been a long, long time since the Moclair Cup was spending the Winter there, but the south Mayo men took another step towards ending that drought with an impressive win over Castlebar Mitchels.

Enda Hession's goal five minutes before the interval was the big difference-maker on the scoreboard, but Damien Egan's men were well and truly in control of this game for the vast majority of it and always looked comfortable down the home straight. A save by Brian Lynskey when Neil Douglas was through one-on-one with time almost up in the half, was another key juncture in deciding the outcome of this one.

Garrymore also had to play the second half without Hession, who failed to return to action after the restart - but with the likes of Caolan Crowe, Shane Nally, Cathal Slattery, David Dolan, Paul Deeley, Gary Golden, Trevor Nally and an evergreen Enda Varley, who chipped in with two points coming off the bench all on song, they were deserving winners after a composed display.

For the vanquished county town men - they are looking at a period of transition, as the old guard who served so well over the past decade move out of the starting line and some of their younger players take ownership of the team. But with the likes of Paddy Durcan, Rory Byrne and James Durcan to lead them along with the likes of Johnny Maughan, Paddy Heneghan and Ultan O'Reilly making names for themselves, there is plenty to be excited about for the future.


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