I recall a few short months ago writing in this paper about the poor fare we were witnessing in the majority of games at the start to this year’s championship. I had witnessed some fairly ordinary fare in every province and the general perception was that football was at a very low ebb. It was hard to argue at the time and I kept my fingers crossed that things just might improve as the season progressed. Wexford created their own fairy tale and did produce some magic along the way as they shocked us all by making it all the way to the All Ireland semi final. But the magic for me in this year’s football championship came in the last two weekends. The All Ireland final displays from the minor and senior final were magical. The quality of play and the excitement generated in the minor final was terrific.
I came away from the drawn game in Croke Park wondering had we blown a glorious opportunity to land the minor title? But I quickly reminded myself of Limerick and that awesome display against Kerry in the replayed semi-final. If they could do it then, why couldn’t we do it in Pearce Park, Longford? Our odds were shortened at the bookies last weekend from 5/2, but I still thought 7/4 was too good a price to miss. We gave ourselves hours to spare to get to Longford as it was anticipated there would be a huge following from Mayo. I had lots of time to mingle before the game and as I watched the huge throng of Mayo support enter the ground, I had that feeling that this could just be our day. The general consensus from the neutrals I spoke to was we were witnessing two of the finest minor teams to have played at this level for quite some time.
Another thrilling afternoon of action
Once the play got underway it was hard to argue with that view. It was a thrilling replay, with the action ebbing and flowing from end to end throughout the match. However, if I am to be honest here, I felt we were hanging on to Tyrone for most of the afternoon. And to be leading by a point with a minute left in normal time highlights the spirit, the work ethic and the camaraderie of this team. There is no doubt that the superior team won out in the end of these two epic encounters.
We appeared out on our feet in extra time as the Tyrone players turned the screw and attacked from every line of their team. I cannot ever recall seeing such a number of magnificent saves in any Gaelic football match than those produced by Robert Hennelly in the Mayo goal. The Tyrone commentators next to me applauded his brilliance on several occasions. And I feel if we didn’t have such a quality goalkeeper, then I am afraid the result might have been decided long before the sixty minutes of normal time had elapsed. But these Mayo boys have given me and many others of real hope for the future. Never have I witnessed a team improve so much in such a short space of time as these lads did over the summer.
There was a great unity of purpose about them with Mayo’s captain, Shane Nally in particular leading by example. As well as the aforementioned Hennelly, I was hugely impressed with our defence in this year’s campaign. They were disciplined in every game, rarely conceding goals and played as a real unit. James Cafferty and Ger McDonagh played their hearts out at midfield, each of them displaying quality at different times. The three points scored by Cafferty in the drawn All Ireland semi final being particularly memorable for me. Up front we were probably over reliant on the magnificent free taking of Aiden Walsh throughout the campaign. I felt we probably needed just one other inside player to compliment the great hearted play from Aiden O’Shea and Cathal freeman.
Time to look at what needs to be done
Over the next few weeks and months we will explore in greater detail what we have to address in order to bridge the gap since we last landed an All Ireland title at this grade. Ray Dempsey and his backroom team deserve great credit for getting so much from this panel of players. When you consider that most of the Tyrone team had won Hogan cup medals with Dungannon earlier this year the achievement of this minor team in refusing to bend the knee over 120 minutes of football made it all the more commendable.