It was never going to be easy going into the heart of south Leitrim on a bitterly cold March night for the Mayo u21s as they kicked off their first competitive game of the season, but they could have made it easier for themselves than they did in the end in Cloone on Wednesday night. Much like the senior side on the Sunday before, they left their shooting boots at home, especially in the first half when they kicked eight wides over the 30 minutes, as a brave battling Leitrim side hit them with everything they had. Mickey Moran and John Morrison had a score to settle with Mayo having been dropped after only one year in charge of the senior side where they brought Mayo to an All Ireland final. But Ray Dempsey’s men did just enough to book a Connacht semi-final spot against Roscommon in Hyde Park on St Patrick’s Day. On paper Mayo looked a far stronger side, with four of the starting forwards all seeing game time in the National League so far this season, but it was not until the 59th minutes when Neil Douglas put Mayo three points clear that they knew they were at the very least not going to lose it, before man of the match Alan Freeman made sure of the win with a good score from out on the right hand side in injury time to seal a four point win.
The hosts roared out of the blocks after only 10 seconds. Tomas Beirne launched the ball down field to Aaron Hickey who broke cover on the right hand side and had a chance to shoot for goal but shot the ball over the bar to put his side into the lead. Adrian Craol doubled the lead for Leitrim on six minutes from a placed ball as Mayo struggled to get to grips with the game. Mayo had registered four wides already at this stage and by the time Neil Douglas scored a nice point after he shook off two men in the seventh minute it looked like it was going to be a tough game for Ray Dempsey’s men. Eoin Ward restored the two point lead with a good score on the run under pressure from Eoghan O’Reilly, just after a goal mouth scramble saw Mayo lucky to escape with their goal intact. Shane Nally, who got through a lot of good work in the first half, drove over Mayo’s second point of the game from out on the 45 yard line, before Aidan O’Shea levelled it up after a nice one-two with Sean Prendergast. With 10 minutes left in the half Nally doubled his account for the evening to put Mayo ahead for the first time, but Wayne McKeon hit back almost straight away for the home side to keep the game neck and neck. The final five minutes of the half saw Mayo hit a decent patch of form with Douglas, Alan Freeman, and O’Shea all clipping over scores, before an Eoin Ward score in injury time left the gap at 0-7 to 0-5 in Mayo’s favour after the break.
The second half was as tough a battle as the first as Leitrim were determined not to let Mayo stretch out a lead, Alan Freeman scored an early point for Mayo, followed by another Douglas score. But Leitrim dug in and closed the gap with points from Conor McCawley and Shane Flanagan as time began to tick down. Freeman pushed the gap back out to three with 10 minutes left, but the hosts kept coming back. Kevin Conlon slotted over a score, before Ray Geraghty who had just come on for Mayo and Adrian Croal exchanged points to leave Mayo two to the good and Leitrim chasing a goal which would have put them back in the lead. But Mayo held firm and the late points from Douglas and Freeman send Mayo through at the end.
Mayo: R Hennelly; P Mulchrone, S McHale, M Gallagher; L Keegan, E O’Reilly, S Prendergast; G McDonnagh, S Nally; C Carolan, K McLoughlin, J Doherty; N Douglas, A O’Shea, A Freeman. Subs: N Prenty for Carolan (41 mins ), R Geraghty for Prenty (52 mins ).
Leitrim: P Farrelly; P Maguire, C Egan, J O’Brien; J Beirne, C McCawley, D Tiernan; K Moran, T Beirne; A Hickey, E Ward, M Beirne; K Conlon, W McKeon, A Croal. Subs: N O’Connor for J Beirne (15 mins ), S McWeeney for O’Connor (28 mins ), S Flanagan for Hickey (30 mins ), S Flanagan for Conlon (53 mins ), M Quinn for M Beirne.
Ref: M Duffy (Sligo ).