No matter what the competition, no matter what the grade, nothing beats the excitement of All-Ireland final day. Tomorrow just happens to be a big one in the GAA calendar. The Mayo u21s travel to Ennis to take on Munster champions Cork 10 years on from their last victory at this grade against the same opposition at the same venue. The players would have felt the buzz all week, our senior team have had to take a back seat for the last few weeks, now it's all about the U21s.
For those of you watching on TV or present in Tullamore, you couldn't have asked for two better semi finals, both filled with a little bit of everything. I played in two All Ireland u21 finals, one against Cork in Ennis coincidently in 1994 and the other against Kerry in 1995. We lost both but I have a special gra for this competition and I am amazed and disappointed the powers that be have decided to abolish it. I’m sure after watching the two semi-finals they wondered, what have we done?
Never say die
Michael Solan's team have come back from the dead in their last two outings, against Roscommon in the Connacht final and of course against Dublin in the semi-final. The extent of these comebacks cannot be underestimated. This year's Roscommon u21 team was their “Dream Team” that everyone in Roscommon had high hopes for. Dublin were, well simply Dublin, always expected to win whenever they take the field nowadays so for Mayo to overturn deficits in the last few minutes of both games can only be something to be proud of. This Mayo team never seem to be beaten even when the chips are down. For the record I'd rather Mayo are ahead by a few points tomorrow with a few minutes remaining rather than clawing back a deficit.
I'm not sure my nerves will be able to take it if it's a repeat of their last two encounters. Cork were massively impressive in their semi-final win against Monaghan, despite all my peers in the press box siding with Monaghan before and during the game, I could never see Cork losing. Their remarkable tally of 2-15 in that game all came from open play, I don't ever remember such a tally not having one score from a placed ball. Cork can call on some familiar names who have all played for their senior team. Stephen Cronin and Kieran Histon make up two thirds of a very strong half back, line while Peter Kelleher is a clever operator at full forward. I hope Mayo full back Seamus Cunniffe has recovered from a hamstring strain to put the shackles on Kelleher as he did with Dublin hotshot Con O'Callaghan in the first semi final. All of Corks forwards scored against Monaghan in a very clinical showing with Sean O'Donoghue (0–4 ) and Sean Powter (0-3 ) contributing handsomely from the half forward line. It will be a big test for David Kenny, Michael Hall and Shairoze Akram to curb their threat but they are more than capable.
Middle sector vital for Mayo
Cork's full forward line is pretty potent as well. Brian Coakley is a monster of a man with good hands and feet, he may not score much but he is very efficient at setting up the play. I just wonder will Michael Solan adjust his team because of the size of Coakley and full forward Peter Kelleher. Eoin O'Donoghue, the pocket rocket from Belmullet, is likely to have a pay per view tussle with Michael Hurley, brother of senior player Brian. Hurley has pace to burn and also scored well against Monaghan in the semi final. For me Mayo hold all the aces in the midfield diamond. Matthew Ruane and Stephen Coen will grapple for every ball as only they know. Conor Loftus was superb against the Dubs using his physical strength to great effect when winning lots of 50-50 balls. He needs to produce the same again. Diarmuid O'Connor does what only he can do, run a half marathon for the duration of the game while being extremely effective at the same time. He is likely to get special attention on Saturday as will be the norm from now on in for him. Liam Irwin showed glimpses of his capabilities in the semi final, he will need a big shift for the full 60 minutes against the Rebels.
Brian Reape is a player who looks to have all the attributes of a fine player but has been snuffed out in Mayo's last two games. He needs to realise after scoring 1-03 against Leitrim that his card is marked. He needs to perform better on Saturday. I hope he recovers from a hamstring injury picked up last weekend as it would be a shame for him to miss such a big game. This game will be about inches. I feel Mayo's senior players will make the difference and thrash out a one or two point win but they'll need to be ably assisted by the rest of the posse.
Ladies legend grows
The Mayo ladies had an unbelievable comeback in their league semi final against Kerry. Despite been 7 points down at half time, they amazingly won the game with a last ditch point from who else but Cora Staunton who amassed another massive haul of 11 points. There must be something in the water in the county with all these miraculous comebacks. The National League finals caused a bit of a stir last weekend; we will discuss them at a later stage, right now it's all about Michael Solan's Mayo.