AGONY AND ECSTACY Ballyhaunis players react to the final whistle as The Neale’s Darragh Moran and Brian O’Halloran celebrate and Oisin Connolly (18) and Fergal Sweeney (11) come to join them. Pic: Michael Donnelly
UP around Cong, Cross and The Neale, happenings in Tokyo, shenanigans in Westminster and other world events paled into insignificance. The denizens of Inisfree had more pressing matters demanding their full attention. Football is the glue that bonds them tightest. This was their super Saturday when glory beckoned again.
They weren’t going to miss a millisecond of its unfolding.
Over an hour before throw-in on a crisp dry Saturday evening they converged in the bowels of the McHale Park stand. As Brendan O’Mahoney and Joe O’Malley idled time away engaging in friendly dialogue, you could detect a quiet confidence in their unfussy demeanour.
In they moseyed in their droves. The Walshs, Hughes, McGraths, Holians, Caseys, Luskins, Hollerans, Lydons, Conroys, Morrins, Cosgroves, Gibbons, Naltys and the milieu of other clans whose lives are governed by their devotion to their team.
Among them stood the returned exiles. Tony McTigue, Paraic Maye, Paul McGrath and Oliver Browne arrived on a weekend junket from New York. As they always do when The Neale are in a county final. Others were lending a listening ear in faraway places like Sydney, Seattle, Toronto and sunny Tenerife.
Seven years ago The Neale junior footballers etched their name in folklore when they won the Pete McDonnell trophy for the first time in the club’s hundred years existence. After moving up the rankings they contested the 2015 Intermediate final, losing out to their southern neighbours Hollymount/Carramore. They might well have considered the experience a bridge too far beyond them and retreated into the valley of the unconcerned.
But those lads are made of sterner stuff. They needed all their resolve too.
Ballyhaunis had successfully negotiated this course before.
Injury also robbed The Neale their influential goalkeeper Keith Hennelly, but Keith lent full support to his able deputy Patrick Hopkins who manned the gap. In a closely-contested game Ballyhaunis asked all the big asks.
Ballyhaunis led by four points at the interval. But with a fine second-half display The Neale responded in style. When the class footballer Tommy Conroy, who caught the eye all evening long, sublimely slid the ball to the Ballyhaunis net they had one hand on the James Sweeney trophy. But the game still harboured a few more twists and Ballyhaunis had matters squared as the clock ticked into injury-time.
It was in those fading minutes fate ordained the most poignant occurrence of the evening. When The Neale team stood on the McHale Park victory podium in 2012, Darragh Walsh and Peter Cosgrove were prominent among their number. Both young men have since gone to their eternal reward. In his eloquent acceptance speech, The Neale captain Aidan O’Sullivan remembered their fallen comrades.
Their two brothers, Padraic and Seánie, still lend their strongest shoulders to The Neale cause. As the game wound down, Seanie Cosgrove paid his brother Peter and team-mate Darragh the most appropriate football homage of all. With almost the last kick of the game Seanie posted the winning point to give The Neale their first ever Intermediate title.
How apt that was.
The cheer acknowledging it echoed loud from the stands and was chorused by those watching on from the veranda of Heaven. It signalled the igniting of victory bonfires in every hamlet across the plains of Moytura.
This brilliant achievement is due reward also for the backroom team of Peter O’Malley, Paul Higgins, Brian O’Malley and that natural born leader of men, Eoin Hughes from Caherduff.
The win has essayed another glorious instalment in the annals of Cong, Cross and The Neale. There’s no need to darn the yarn either with extra seams of fabrication. The narrative of The Neale winning the Mayo Intermediate championship will stand on its own factual telling forever and a day. You couldn’t make it up.
In Innisfree a new dawn beckons. Next summer they’ll play senior championship football in their state of the art facilities in Cong. It’s another chapter in the making.
Their enthralling saga continues.