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Four Mayo All Stars well deserved

Sean Rice
Sean Rice

Four All Stars well deserved

Seán Rice

JAMES HORAN can claim a big slice of the latest All Stars honour bestowed on Mayo football. The awards to three defenders are a new distinction for the county ... and confirm the quality of the defensive structure the manager has been assem- bling.
All of the four awards are well deserved, but none was more pleasing to this writer than that conferred on full-back Ger Cafferkey. The praises of Keith Higgins and Lee Keegan have been sung on many occasions. But when the laurels were being dished out, the Ballina man was never top of the bunch.
Yet he has become perhaps the most efficient defender of the six. Ever since winning an All-Ireland U-21 title in 2006, Cafferkey, with the exception of a couple of breaks, has been Mayo’s regular senior full-back.
He has had his low moments, and he is not in the mould of great high-fielding full-backs of other generations ­ even though he has out-fielded some notable forwards, including Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy.
Other commendable qualities have shaped his career, however, and were obviously recognised by the All Star selectors including timing and tenacity in the tackle, his ability to dispossess an opponent and his determination to let none pass.
Playing among the best teams in the country and slogging it out with the top players has brought an edge to his game and sharpened his understanding of full-back play. He is still young and hopefully with the rest of his colleagues will soon realise his dream in Mayo football.
Keith Higgins has shown a consistency throughout the last few years that have made him the top corner back in the country. His sprints from defence and his ability to cover for Cafferkey, as Seán Flanagan once did for Paddy Prendergast, distinguishes his performances.
Lee Keegan was an unexpected choice for many, but no less deserving of his slot among the Stars than any of the other 14. His selection is a huge honour, too, for the Westport club who battle hard for support in a town where soccer dominates.
Keegan’s qualities as an attacking wing back and his hard graft in the tackle had shone through all of Mayo’s matches. His selection will reinforce his confidence as Mayo pick themselves up for a new assault on the championship.
Alan Dillon must have been an automatic choice for the centre forward berth ... even though the final was not his finest hour. But those who watched him against Dublin would have no hesitation in singling him out for honours.
All year he has been Mayo’s architect, and the class he brought to plotting wins has been full of vision and imagination.
Goalkeeper David Clarke, midfielders Aidan O’Shea and Barry Moran, and Kevin McLoughlin will be disappointed to have been omitted – McLoughlin especially in view of his significant contributions to Mayo’s progress throughout the season.
The selection of Cillian O’Connor as Young Footballer of the year for the second year in succession capped a special night for Mayo football.
The Ballintubber man is the first to have won two such awards. And the honour evoked an extraordinary performance by him in the All-Ireland semi-final when against a barrage of invective from the ‘Hill’ he scored freely and coolly.

The Neale come back from brink
THE cup was in sight, and Ardnaree had begun to play down the clock. They were five points ahead, holding onto possession and coasting.
In the remaining couple of minutes The Neale scaled back the lead to three points. But with only seconds left of injury time, that goal stood mockingly between them and their first county title.
Only the most rabid optimist among The Neale’s supporters could have expected that their last kick of the game, a free by Seán Cosgrove, would produce anything better than a point.
Time was up, The goalmouth was stuffed with Ardnaree men, an impervious wall of defence facing the free-taker. Bar this last kick, it was all over … and Cosgrove knew it. And summoning every ounce of his many talents, The Neale ace struck the ball perfectly with his left foot and it ripped into the roof of the net.
And therein lies the story of The Neale’s first county title at their sixth attempt.
Ardnaree could not find the heart to recover in extra time. The victory carrot that dangled before them had been swept away in a moment of downright disbelief. Confused, stunned, they stumbled on ... but futilely.
The Neale were rejuvenated, bursting with renewed energy ... inspired. Cosgrove, their hero, had set the pattern for their renewal. Now he was showing them the way, skying over a couple of points and breathing new life into a side that was downcast and dispirited in the minutes leading up to their goal.
They had lost key midfielder John Varley (pictured) to injury, and Ardnaree had crashed in two brilliant goals in the second half to deservedly lead by five points. They looked unassailable, victory at their third attempt in four years apparently assured.
But Seán Cosgrove came to the Neale’s rescue and the rest of the team reflected their gratitude in some brilliant football throughout the extra 20 minutes.
As a contest this junior final put its senior counterpart in the shade.

Just where is the game going?

THE launch of the Mayo Senior Football Development Academy is a welcome initiative undertaken by the county board.
It was one of the proposals emanating from the Strategic Review sub-committee chaired by Liam Horan to have received the imprimatur of the county board.
It is now under way with two dozen aspiring players over the age of 19 being groomed in whatever it takes not just to play senior football for Mayo but also to compete at the very top with the best in the country.
Noel Connelly, Kieran Gallagher, Michael Gavin and Stephen Rochford will conduct the specialised coaching, and if their range of characteristics is any yardstick, there is hope for the success of the academy.
Watching the general standard of football, you wonder at times does the quality reflect the preparation undertaken by some coaches of club teams throughout the county. Doubt hung conspicuously over the county under-21 semi-finals on Friday night in which skill was not given a fair chance to survive.
All four teams were superbly fit with inexhaustible funds of energy, most of it directed toward running and group tackling. There was so much fouling, so much defensive football, so much dragging and pulling that you wonder is it the refereeing or the coaching that is at fault.
You get the impression that players are being coached not to emulate whatever flair opponents might possess, but to foil it. If one is a good fielder, then you plan not to outfield him but to crowd him out, stop him whatever way you can, curb him, flail him, anything that denies him any sort of advantage.
In an age when the distinction between back and forward divisions is diminishing, when backs get forward and forwards get back, when nearly half the teams follow the ball simultaneously, like juveniles, you wonder where the game is going.
Emphasis in training appears to be on the development of physical strength and fitness, with less thought given to developing natural talent, or promoting or protecting it, or encouraging players to express it.
The academy will be dealing with players whose skills have already been identified and who are at a crossroads in their development. We wish them well in directing them on the course to success.

Just a thought …
ALTHOUGH he won an All-Ireland medal with Galway in 2001 and has given good service, Joe Bergin ­– who has announced his retirement ­– did not quite reach the midfield greatness he promised in those early years.

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