All eyes will be on McHale Park on Sunday for the repeat of last year’s senior championship final, last year it was Ballintubber who were the last men left standing. While both groups of players are still more or less the same, on the sideline two new men will have been busy for the past few weeks plotting and planning each other’s downfall. When James Horan left Ballintubber to rejuvenate the standing of Mayo football on a national level, Anthony McGarry was the man left with the task of filling his boots. For the Mitchels, when Peter Ford stepped aside his banisteoir’s bib was handed to former Mayo senior and u21 manager Pat Holmes, and one target was given him, bring the Moclair cup back to the county town.
While every team in the senior championship starts off the year with dreams and goals of being in the final at this stage of the year, no one can argue that these two sides are the deserving finalists, with only 60 minutes standing between them and glory. Ballintubber have been the almost perfect model of consistency over the past couple of years, the high level of performance that they demand from themselves has seen them jump from the ranks of intermediate to senior champions in only a couple of years. That consistency did take a bit of skid last weekend when they were beaten by Charlestown in the league, but with this week’s game on their mind, taking their eyes off the prize for a minute can be forgiven and will be forgiven if the men in red are able to become back to back champions.
As for Castlebar, they have long been the sleeping giant of Mayo football, copious amounts of underage success had failed to transfer up to the senior ranks. And after an unthinkable couple of years in the wilderness of intermediate football in the not so recent past they have been working towards putting themselves back at the top of the game in the county.
Come Sunday afternoon all that history will count for little as it is all about a performance on the field. In last year’s final Castlebar Mitchels will feel they did not perform to the best of their abilities, while Ballintubber will argue that it was because they did not let them. Getting to know the opposition is something that both sides will have had to do with very little work as they know each other inside out by now.
In every game the battle around the middle third is vital, Sunday will be no different. Jason Gibbons and Michéal Hoban have built a very solid and effective partnership there this year for Ballintubber, while for Castlebar, Barry Moran (who has really come back to form this summer ) and Shane Fitzmaurice have nailed down exactly what is expected from each of their roles. The winning and losing of this game could very easily come from who comes on top in this sector.
When it comes to scoring threat, both sides have that in abundance. Cillian O’Connor could be the young player of the year for the country by the time the game comes around, and working out a plan to stop him is something that Pat Holmes will have been working hard on all week. But if they do manage to stop O’Connor there is plenty more for Castlebar to worry about. Kevin McGuinness is a handful for any full back in the county, while Padraic O’Connor’s threat cannot be taken lightly at all. There is not much left to be written about Alan Dillon, the Mayo captain’s ability to influence the game and be involved in key game deciding moments is well known, and on Sunday he could quite well be picking up his second man of the match award in a county final.
Castlebar are no slouches in potential in their full forward line all the same, with Danny Kirby developing into a real top class footballer. The full forward line is not his natural position, but stopping the big man in there will be no easy task for the Ballintubber rearguard. Neil Douglas and probably Aidan Walsh in the corners both have lots of big game experience under their belts at a very early stage of their career. Douglas if he gets going will be a handful and a big performance will be needed from him. If there is not much left to be written about Alan Dillon, then what is left to be said about Kevin Filan was probably written almost a decade ago. Having missed out on last year’s final after picking up a late red card in the semi-final he will have been chomping at the bit all week for Sunday to come. Deadly accurate from placed balls and willing to give everything he has on the field for the side he is one man who will not be hiding from the action or unwilling to take on responsibility on Sunday.
At the back Castlebar have a more than impressive back six, with Sean Ryder, Tom Cunniffe, and Richie Feeney a half back line that is hard to be topped in the county. While the full back line of Eoghan O’Reilly, Alan Feeney, and Donal Newcombe, with the experienced Ciaran Naughton between the posts, have more than enough to ability to snuff off the very potent attacking threat from Ballintubber.
Ballintubber’s defence are not bad players either, with Tom Early and Danny Geraghty forming one of most physically imposing half back lines around, with Gary Dillon flanking them on the wing. In the back three Gary Loftus is a tough, tight, man marking corner back while Cathal Hallian is not going to back away from any challenge in the number three shirt, with Myles Kelly more than capable of making any corner forward’s life tough for 60 minutes.
Where will it be won and lost on Sunday will rest on the winning of many different match ups all over the field on Sunday. Castlebar will be looking to put to right what went wrong last year, while Ballintubber have the winning edge on their side. The defending county champions should just about make it two in a row.