PEADAR GARDINER’S gracious tribute to Ballaghaderreen epitomised the sporting nature of the battle in which he had led Crossmolina to victory. In identifying with their disappointment the Crossmolina captain – perhaps evoking his own All-Ireland final agony – expressed heartfelt sympathy with the team he had helped to conquer.
The sincerity of his words of encouragement, his plea to them to persevere, were a fitting finale to one of the best county finals in years, a gripping, sporting spectacle which left you in no doubt about the healthy state of the game in the county.
Ballaghaderreen will have regretted the events that led to the replay, the manner in which Crossmolina wrecked their high hopes of victory with a last-second goal. Freed by that stroke of wizardry, the champions were not about to be re-shackled.
Whatever complacency might have attended their previous performance, none was evident in the replay. They swept into the game with the conviction of reigning champions. And, like the drawn game - when it seemed this time that Crossmolina had it all wrapped up - Andy Moran conjured his own little magical act. His goal from a free in the 59th minute invited no fisted finish; the ball had almost the velocity of a bullet as it fizzed straight into the top corner of the net.
It opened up the possibilities of another steal, this time by Ballaghaderreen, or indeed of extra time. There were only two points between them, and there were three minutes of injury-time remaining.
But Crossmolina have not won six titles in the last eleven years without accumulating the experience and wisdom that victory chisels into the psyche. They held tight to that two-point lead, guarded every pass, every move of the ball with every fibre in their bodies.
Nothing would be done to offer an advantage to their opponents, no foolish kick, no stray pass. The drama of the drawn joust was thus avoided. And the determination with which substitute Mark Leonard slammed the ball over the bar for the last score of the game left no one in doubt about the destination of the Moclair Cup.
Ballagh’ were worthy contenders all through, and there were moments in the second half when they offered a genuine challenge for Crossmolina’s crown. At the interval when the champions led by five points, no one was prepared to predict that they were a certainty. Ballaghaderreen had shown a lot of flair, and resilience.
What must have worried them were the chances they failed to take early on. In between Peadar Gardiner’s opening point in the opening minute and their second, by Ciaran McDonald, seven minutes later, a more experienced side might have eked out a couple of goals. Paul O’Donnell in the goalmouth tipped a ball from Barry Regan onto the crossbar, and the same player dragged his shot across the face of the goal seconds later.
At the other end, nothing was wasted. That first point by McDonald was curled in from the left sideline, an omen of what was to come . . . McDonald on top of his game. The vision and insight of this master craftsman were fully unfurled. He was the difference between Ballaghaderreen and success.
With McDonald in this form you begin to feel sorry for those who, in his absence, might be deserving of man-of-the-match accolades. You think of the major contribution Peadar Gardiner made to their victory, his devastating bursts out of defence, his two excellent points, his all-round generalship.
You think of the quality Joe Keane brought to his role of full-forward, his nimbleness, his swiftness on the turn, his fine scores; You think of the outstanding defensive work of Declan Keating, of Brian Benson, of the evergreen James Nallen in the middle of the field, of his brother Tom at full-back. And yet, McDonald, in his own unique way, transcended all of their accomplishments.
From his inexhaustible seam of rich talent came seven splendid points, some from far out on the sidelines. And his perception in setting up the goal that settled Crossmolina on the road to victory in the last minute of the first half was extraordinary.
McDonald had barely grabbed a pass from Brian Benson when he delivered cleverly to James Nallen who had run behind the defence. Accentuating his own sharpness, Nallen cleverly drew goalkeeper Ollie Flanagan before providing Benson with the final pass that brought the goal at a crucial stage in the game.
Ballaghaderreen had not played with the assurance they had displayed in the drawn match. Barry Kelly, who had a stormer the previous week at midfield, did not reach the same degree of prominence. James Kilcullen did a lot of good work, but James Nallen was on this occasion the key midfield player.
Crossmolina moved Damien Syron from full-back in the drawn game to midfield for the replay. Their back line benefited from the inclusion of Tom Nallen whose strength and experience were invaluable assets.
They lost corner-backs Ronan Rochford, Jonathon O’Boyle, and substitute Pearse Loftus, but from the wealth of talent on their bench they were able to introduce the likes of Enda Lavelle Mark Leonard and Noel Hegarty whose competence was such that the team’s performance suffered nothing from the changes. The inclusion of Liam Moffatt in their forward line was also a smart move by the Crossmolina mentors. Moffatt added extra power to their attack.
You could sense the influence of John O’Mahony on Ballagh’s performance immediately after the break. Within a minute Andy Hanley had their sixth point. Joe Dillon had another a few minutes later. And that was followed by their first goal, by Hanley, in which Joe Dillon, Barry Regan and Derek Moran all had a hand. For the first time in the match they were on level terms and for a moment the champions were rattled.
Parity, however, lasted only so long as it took for McDonald to swing the ball over the bar from a free for a foul on Joe Keane . . . less than two minutes. Tomás Regan who had moved to the fullback position did his best to curb the danger Keane had posed. But the full-forward is hard to handle. Tenacious and fast, he fights for every ball doggedly. Nobody could have done better than Regan on the Crossmolina man.
Ballagh’ were not able to sustain that early momentum. Hanley, Regan, Andy Moran and Joe Dillon strove for some sort of vitalising break, but Crossmolina were digging in everywhere, all the time chasing, harassing, working assiduously. Their backs, including Damien Mulligan, allowed their opponents no room to develop a move. Frustration set in among the Ballaghaderreen men. And when they trailed by five points entering the last minute of normal time you knew there was no turning.
Andy Moran jerked us back to reality with his powerful goal, however, and everyone scrambled for a look at the scoreboard. Two points, maybe another sensation was on the cards. But in times of crises you need cool heads, and composure is a by-product of experience. That’s what Ballaghaderreen lacked. It and Ciaran McDonald were the main difference between the two.
In winning their seventh title, and sixth since 1995, Crossmolina rank among the great county champions of any era. Next Sunday they meet Roscommon’s St Brigids in the Connacht championship. To reach Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day is their objective. Big hurdles have to be crossed before then and, as coach to St Brigids, John O’Mahony will have a second chance in as many weeks to douse their hopes. On Sunday’s form, however, his is an unenviable task.
In guiding Ballagh’ to the final, O’Mahony brought into focus new promising talent for future Mayo teams. When the disappointment of Sunday’s defeat abates, they should not allow the experience gained this season go to waste. They have the material to win a county title, and they can draw on what they learned these past two weeks to support their campaign next season.