SAVOURING THE MOMENT Mayo’s Liam Irwin celebrates victory over Cork in last April’s All-Ireland Under-21 Football Final. Pic: Sportsfile
FOR those of us who were there in Cusack Park, Ennis last April, the scenes that followed the final whistle of the 2016 All-Ireland Football Championship final will sit fondly in our memory forever.
Mayo had just captured the Clarke Cup for the first time in ten years, and droves of supporters flocked onto the immaculate Clare turf to celebrate with an extraordinary group of young footballers.
Buried deep in the middle of that buoyant crowd was the unmistakable figure of Liam Irwin. Fresh off a blistering performance where he shot 2-2, his 6’1” frame stood out amongst the many adoring supporters every bit as much as his scoring displays did throughout that memorable campaign.
He had now won his second All-Ireland medal, and over eight months on, the Breaffy man recalled that it was a moment he was determined to enjoy to the fullest.
“The big thing I tried to do [last] year – as the year of the minors  really did pass by me even though we did so well – was not to let this moment pass, to embrace everything and to enjoy it,” he told The Mayo News recently.
“Obviously when you win an All-Ireland, it’s hard not to let everything just pass by because you are so caught up in everything. “But I think I got hold of the moment as much as I could, and in the dressing-room after, just listening to Mike [Solan] and Stephen [Coen], it was very special.”
It was in that very dressing-room that Irwin says he found his most cherished memory of the year.
Away from the blistering heat, manic crowd, and the pursuing media, it was those few minutes in the dressing-room shortly after the final whistle – spent alone with only his team-mates and management – that he enjoyed most.
A moment of realisation that everything they had strived so desperately for as a group, in all those months previously, had finally come to fruition.
“I can remember the management saying, ‘This is your chance to be here as a team, and once you leave here you are the Mayo people’s, they will be pulling and dragging out of you wanting to take pictures’, and we owed them that for the support they gave us.
“So we were just sitting there, not knowing what to say really, just knowing that you’ve done it with all these lads that you trained so hard with for the last few months. That was probably the best moment of the year, not even scoring a point or a goal or any of that. It was definitely just that – sitting there – it was the last second that you were finally able to just relax.”
The road to glory
MAYO’S run to All-Ireland glory did not come without its fair share of drama.
Being five points down to neighbours Roscommon at half-time in the Connacht final, and four down to Dublin with eight minutes of normal time remaining in the All-Ireland semi-final, did nothing for the faint-hearted.
But each time, Mayo displayed remarkable resolve to dig deep and orchestrate a victory that left nobody in doubt as to who deserved it most. And Irwin was quick to point out that defeat was a prospect that never entered their minds.
“I think if you are watching it from the stands, it’s out of your control and you have time to think, ‘Jeez, do these lads have it?’” he laughed.
“But when you’re on the pitch, you just don’t have that time and we know our own abilities and that we’re capable of beating anyone.
“We didn’t get going at all in the first half against Cork [in the All-Ireland final], but we knew there was a massive performance in us. “And that’s probably a little bit of a regret looking back, that we never gave a full performance throughout the season. But we always did enough … We never worried that we weren’t going to win a game, definitely not.”
Irwin has become known as ‘The Bear in the Square’, a nickname given to him on Mid West Radio by Mike Finnerty of The Mayo News during the summer of 2013.
“I must have went through some young fella on the edge of the square and that’s how that came about,” Irwin smiles.
Remarkably, the 21 year-old has never lost a championship game in which he has featured for the Green and Red.
He chalked up a personal tally of 3-9 for the under-21 campaign (three games, having missed the first round tie against Leitrim due to injury). That scoring rate, including his memorable 2-2 in that final against Cork, was instrumental in his county’s success.
But the larger-than-life figure was quick to heap praise on the monumental effort put in by all, in particular the management team of Michael Solan, John Ginty and Joe Keane.
“You just couldn’t have any more respect for them,” he acknowledged. “I remember talking to them over in Chicago individually on the recent trip away and they were so quick to push the praise on players and the back-room team and not on themselves. “The work they did behind the scenes was just unbelievable. Lads that wouldn’t have been getting games, and might have felt hard done by, still felt massively involved. And that was the thing really, everyone was buying into it and they made that possible.
“They were just three really calm guys that could hold the respect of over 32 young lads – and that isn’t easy done.”
Not done yet
POSSESSING All-Ireland medals at minor and under-21 levels is something that very few footballers in the country can boast of.
But with one more Celtic Cross yet to come before Irwin completes his collection, it’s evident that he doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels. His hunger for success remains as strong as ever.
“I definitely think you do become greedy, but you don’t really want to worry about them [medals], that was over eight months ago,” he admits.
“It’s not that I’m not bothered about them, obviously I am, but I think when your career is finished that’s the time to look back and say ‘Jesus, I did win that and not many others did’.
“But for now, I just want to win more.”