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Ballina back among the club contenders

Sean Rice
Sean Rice

Ballina back in the frame

LONG before the Mayo senior championship commenced, all of next weekend’s semi-finalists were favourites to make the final shake up… all except Ballina Stephenites.
No-one could have quibbled with the prediction that Knockmore, Castlebar Mitchels and reigning champions Ballintubber would reach the semi-final stage. But Ballina looked less likely than Charlestown or Crossmolina or Breaffy or Ballaghaderreen to qualify.
The former All-Ireland champions needed to be revitalised, it seemed. Their form had dipped; time had caught up with some of their old soldiers. A renewal of confidence and leadership was vital to pave a new winning way.
Not for the first time have the Stephenites defied the odds, however, and on Sunday at McHale Park they battle with the holders Ballintubber for a place in the final.
Although they looked a less equipped side, their street-wise football helped oust Breaffy in a quarter-final replay. And having got this far, who would rule them out of another final spot?
Much like the last year’s final when Ballintubber denied Castlebar Mitchels, Sunday’s is once again a battle between urban and rural clubs, a clash of styles, and the pride that motivates them.
Since winning the title for the first time, Ballintubber have not let the euphoria blunt their ambition for further success. Having lost manager James Horan to the county’s needs, they have continued to prosper under Anthony McGarry, and their steady progress has labelled them ‘the team to beat’.
Their conviction was tested in a couple of matches. Garrymore asked some questions of them before they finally dug out a three-point win, but while a similar margin separated them from Shrule/Glencorrib in the quarter-final, their performance was more assured.
Alan Dillon is their main driving force, and he has been so long playing top-class football for club and county you wonder where his energy comes from.
On Sunday Ballina may assign their regular full-back Ger Cafferkey to centre-back duties in a bid to rein in his county team mate. It could be a fascinating duel between the wily Dillon and the tough-tackling Cafferkey.
Midfield ought to also to be the focus of attention between Ballina’s likely pairing of Pat Harte and Ronan McGarrity and Ballintubber’s Jason Gibbons and Micheál Hoban.
The Stephenites could have the edge in that sector and the onus will then fall on the Earleys, Cathal Hallinan, Danny Geraghty and Ruaidhrí O’Connor to shore up midfield and provide a sufficient supply for Dillon, Alan Plunkett and the O’Connor brothers to eke out a winning margin.
Castlebar look up against it
CLEAR favourites going into last year’s county final, Castlebar Mitchels were left to rue their complacency, and having struggled this season to rediscover that form, they now face an almighty struggle with Knockmore.
As the Mitchels learnt to their cost, form teams can become a bit of a disappointment, but at the same time you can’t ignore the manner in which Knockmore dismissed Ballagh’ in the quarter-finals.
It was a performance with characteristic Knockmore spirit, backboned with the vigour of county players Kevin McLoughlin and Trevor Howley, and the poaching efficacy of Aidan Kilcoyne, Damien Munnelly and the evergreen Kevin O’Neill.
O’Neill, in his late thirties, is still capable of turning a game. Reminiscent of club-mate, Peter Hughes, who was a key man in attack right into his forties, the Foxford native won a lot of breaking ball around midfield against Ballagh’.
And if Stephen Sweeney decides to knock down the ball rather than to catch, the Mitchels will want to be on their guard.
Some injury doubt surrounds Alan Feeney who was forced to retire in a recent league match and Castlebar will be hoping the full-back will be ready to take his place on Saturday.
Their poor form stems from an anaemic forward line that is missing the speed and thrust of Tom King who was injured a few months back. Niall Lydon, Neil Douglas and Kevin Filan have been providing most of the scores. The return from America of Danny Kirby and Aidan Walsh has strengthened the front line somewhat, but without the killer punch, it is a struggling sector.
The defence, which includes the Feeney brothers, Tom Cunniffe, Eoin O’Reilly and Sean Ryder is as firm as can be expected. And if Barry Moran and Shane Fitzmaurice could gain the edge at midfield, the Mitchels have a chance. But on form Knockmore are favourites to advance.

Down memory lane
Prendergast still the prince of backs

PADDY Prendergast is a living link with the legend of 1951. In football pubs around Mayo you will find in photographs cogent proof of the quality that has enshrined his name in the folklore of Gaelic football.
Those pictures tell it all. He is the central figure in the action around the goalmouth, airborne, head and shoulders above the rest, seemingly above even the crossbar, accomplished and self-assured.
He is widely regarded as the greatest full-back of all time. His contemporary, Paddy O’Brien of Meath, challenges him closely for the honour, it is said, and in the opinion of some devotees had the edge on the Mayo man.
But Prendergast’s natural flair, his ability to cat-leap into the air, and his single-mindedness in clearing his lines won him the plaudits of friend and foe all over Ireland.
“Paddy Prendergast was the greatest full-back in my time,” said Seán Flanagan. “He had the three essentials you look for in an outstanding full-back… mobility, speed and anticipation, allied of course to fielding ability.”
The late Jack Mahon of Galway chose the Mayo full-back as the best of all time, recalling his performance against Kerry in the replay of 1951 as the best he had ever seen outside that of Seán Purcell’s performance in Tuam in 1954.
Eamon Mongey had this to say of the great man: “Paddy Prendergast was a wonderful fielder and was already moving out with the ball as he came down.
“He had the ability to transfer the ball to his left hand and photos of him in action show him two yards out with the ball as he hit the ground.”
Midfield was where he had been settling before some visionary guru in Mayo saw his potential as a full-back. For his native Ballintubber and at St Gerald’s in Castlebar, he towered around midfield.
While training as a garda in Phoenix Park he caught the eye of established football luminaries, including Mayo’s own Tom Langan. Then came his first station in Dungloe and football with the local club.
Here in the ruthless forties, the Ballintubber man toughened and thrived. Tribal warfare he called it. For the county final against Gweedore, lighted candles in the windows of opposition supporters greeted them on the way to the match.
By 1947 he was at midfield in the Donegal senior side that reached the final of the Dr McKenna Cup. Bush telegraph resonated with talk of his performances. Soon Mayo beckoned.
Installed in his new position at full-back against Galway, he was so lost that Seán Flanagan asked him: “What in Christ’s name are you doing here?”
It was a baptism of fire. Afterwards Flanagan reached for the pencil and foolscap… and the lesson was not lost on the young garda.
In no time at all he was raking the skies at full-back having blossomed into a prodigious defender unsurpassed in the history of the game.
“There was a fierce pride in our team. We wanted to do it for our county, our parish and our club,” said the man who is still hale and hearty and living in Tralee.

Just a thought …
YOU can never rule them out, and they will burst a gut to redeem their image of invincibility. But just now Kerry look like a side in despair and sadly need of rejuvenation.