While driving to Hyde Park in Roscommon last Sunday there were two things on my mind. The first, I was wondering what Santa Claus would bring me, the second, whether I would rather be at home watching the All Blacks against Ireland in the rugby where the All Blacks were bidding to make history by being the first team to go unbeaten in a calendar year. By all accounts the rugby was pulsating, but with GAA in the bloodstream I was definitely in the right place. The Connacht club final between reigning All- Ireland champions St Brigid’s and Mayo champions Castlebar Mitchels was one of the most intense and exciting games I was ever present at. It literally had everything. Brilliant goals, superb defending, disallowed scores, unreal goal keeping, dubious refereeing, and for the week that is in it a scene out of Monty Python when Shane Curran had to be man handled off the field, red cards, and last but by no means least, the last kick of the game levelling scores. I am sure everyone present will take a different memory home with them.
The game started at 100 miles an hour and Brigid’s showed why they were going for a remarkable four in a row in Connacht, unbeaten in the province since Ballina turned them over in 2007. They played all the early football and when Senan Kilbride crashed home a brilliant goal after a routine catch by Ciaran Naughton went horribly wrong, it looked ominous for the Mitchels. Karl Mannion was pulling the strings at midfield and Kilbride was giving Tom Cunniffe the runaround. This game had many turning points, none more so than when Karl Mannion's high centre was flicked narrowly wide by Kilbride when St Brigid’s were already five points up. Surely there would have been no comeback from an eight point deficit against the best team in the country. Danny Kirby got the Mitchels right back in it with a superbly taken goal, but instead of pushing on, it was the Roscommon side who picked up momentum and scored the next three points. Castlebar had only registered 1-1 in the first 30 minutes of football. I spoke to Sean de Paor and Ray Silke at half time and neither gave Castlebar a chance, they were hugely impressed with St Brigid’s. The second half was the best half of football Castlebar have played, ever. After the wrongful dismissal of Barry Moran (in my opinion ) you would think the game was done and dusted and Brigid’s would annihilate their vulnerable opponents, but amazingly the opposite happened. Inspired by Alan Feeney from corner back every Castlebar player upped the ante which resulted in their going on an amazing scoring spree despite being a man down. After a brilliantly dispatched penalty by Neil Douglas, another superb breakout from the back by Alan Feeney who in turn passed to Tom King, and the Mervue United soccer star showed some sublime skill to round two defenders on the end line to square a cross to Richie Feeney for a tap in to send the Mitchell’s supporters into dreamland. It was a remarkable goal and Castlebar had out scored their opponents by 2-05 to 0-1 in the second half. Like true champions St Brigid’s clawed their way back, and when Frankie Dolan scored an outrageous point to put his team two up again with a few minutes remaining you felt Castlebar had nothing left. Neil Douglas pointed from a very difficult angle to leave the minimum between the teams going into injury time. What happened next was as bizarre as I have witnessed at a match of such importance. Castlebar pressed for an equaliser and when Ian Kilbride nailed Tom King on the edge of the D, Marty Duffy blew what sounded like the final whistle and clearly hand signalled that the game was over, surely it was a free in for Castlebar. After what seemed like ages Duffy red carded Ian Kilbride and gave the free in to Castlebar. Step up ice cool Neil Douglas to point and send the game into extra time. What a half of football.
Castlebar were in total control in extra time bar one incident that saw the ball rebound off the post. Their superior fitness and hunger was there for all to see. Pat Holmes emptied his bench to great effect, substitutes Cian Costello and James Durkin scoring three of their extra time points. The All Ireland Champions looked a spent force as Castlebar toyed with their opponents as Brigid’s had two more players sent off in extra time, for what? I still don’t know! It is great to see a Mayo club at the summit of club football in Connaught again. It’s hard to name individuals after a brilliant team performance. Castlebar were 14/1 last week to win the Andy Merrigan Cup, now they are 6/1, did anybody get on it? I did.