IT is the inevitable showdown on which the collective minds of both clubs have been focused for the past 12 months; Castlebar Mitchels dedicated to retaining their Connacht title, Corofin hell-bent on relieving them of the crown they surrendered last season to the Mayo champions.
With due respect to the opposition in both counties, this is the objective that has motivated Castlebar and Corofin in sweeping aside all-comers all summer.
The battleground is MacHale Park and it holds the promise of a thriller.
High assessment of the Mitchels’ panache in winning the county title has been moderated somewhat by a more practical performance in their provincial quarter-final win over Tourlestrane last Saturday.
It was not a performance Corofin will fear as they plan the downfall of the Mitchels, having conquered their eighth Galway senior title in 11 years.
But then there is no room for style or fine skills when the ruggedness of the opposition is sometimes more intimidating than the quality of their football. Castlebar adjusted admirably to the trench warfare of the quarterfinal and won without embellishments. Readjustment will, however, be necessary for Sunday’s semi-final.
Corofin are on a similarly high plane in quality and experience and have impressed throughout the Galway championship this season. What’s more, they believe they are the best in Connacht, and that last year’s loss to Castlebar was no more than a temporary aberration. The closest their rivals in Galway got to Corofin was the final that Salthill/Knocknacarra lost by five points.
So now they are confident of extending their dominance to the rest of the province once more, and to further All-Ireland success ... if Castlebar do not again become the stumbling bloc on which their hopes falter.
Some fascinating duels are expected in the process. In whatever position in the defence he takes up, Kieran Fitzgerald will be difficult to pass. The former county star has just won his 11th county title and his experience is unmatched.
But the duel of the match is likely to be set by Paddy Durcan and Gary Sice if both are fit to start. Sice missed the county final and Durcan last Sunday’s semi-final. Tough and relentless, the Galway man was nevertheless overshadowed by the Mitchels’ star last season. So reputations are at stake.
Full-back Liam Silke and the Mitchels’ Neil Douglas ought to engender plenty of excitement when they do battle – one a highly respected county defender, the other a talented striker who has amassed huge scores this season.
At midfield, Barry Moran and Aidan Walsh square up to Daithí Burke and Ronan Steede. The Castlebar men have timed their peaking powers to perfection and will be expected to maintain their good form of recent weeks.
Jason Leonard has been setting the standard in attack for Corofin, much in the same way as Neil Douglas in Mayo. Five of his nine points in the Galway final were from play.
On the shoulders of Ray O’Malley rests the responsibility of counterbalancing the skills of the wing forward. It’s an unenviable task, but not beyond the capabilities of the Mitchels star.
There ought to be some interesting head-to-head encounters also between the Mitchels’ full-back Ger McDonagh and the experienced Martin Farragher. And no less a claim for a decisive outcome from the duel between Donie Newcombe and Micheál Lundy, who returned from America in time for the Galway final.
Newcombe has lost none of his old verve and will relish the prospect of confronting a tough opponent. The outcome of their little war could be the highlight of the hour.
Indeed, no single combat is without influence. It is so tight a prospect that a heroic performance from the least expected source could produce the desired result.
Eoghan O’Reilly at centre half-back for Castlebar and Dylan Wall is a contest worth watching. Fergal Durkan and perhaps Kieran Fitzgerald, Shane Irwin and Ian Burke, and James Durcan versus Barry O’Donovan, are all snapshops of what must add up to a mighty overall battle.
No contest has held higher expectations of a classic. Corofin are strong in the vital, central positions. But the Mitchels are driven by a desire to re-emerge from the province and to atone for their defeat in the All-Ireland final last March.
It is a tall order, but although they are outsiders, the single-mindedness that has distinguished their football in this campaign might well see them through.
Not pretty, but Mitchels get the job done
IT was never seen as anything other than a limb-stretcher for their looming battle with Corofin. Nor was it destined to reproduce the subtlety of the Mitchels’ county final triumph.
Tourlestrane presented a different challenge at Markievicz Park. Without the finesse of the Mitchels, without their experience and greater team-balance, the Sligo champions had only the resistance of a packed defence as their sole opposing strategy.
It didn’t work out, but it tested every sinew of the Mitchels, in their bid to negotiate round a wall of 15 committed defenders. And it amounted to a dour, rugged, unlovely Connacht quarter-final which no one will want to remember.
Gaelic football has suffered from the scourge of blanket defending. Inventiveness is almost impossible against the choking jungle of a crowded defence. Fine skills are crushed, hopes frustrated.
Was it any wonder that from this ragbag four black cards were yielded … Castlebar’s Neil Douglas and Aidan Walsh, and Cathal Henry and Liam Gaughan for Tourlestrane the victims.
Castlebar, clearly the better side, struggled for scores throughout, every one of their total of 1-10 hard earned. Their goal in the 18th minute was the one nugget that eased their minds, a jewel rescued from the dross.
From midfield Aidan Walsh, having one of his best games, fashioned the move. As play developed on the left flank and every Sligo man rushed to quell the danger, Walsh suddenly switched direction and with an inspired 40-yards pass found Neil Douglas free ... and the defence out of position. The full-forward needed no further incentive, and confidently slammed the ball past Pádraig McVeigh in the Tourlestrane goal.
The Sligo champs did have one chance in the opening minutes to take a shock lead, and would have but for an outstanding save from Rory Byrne in the Castlebar goal. Nothing else came their way ... just one point, their first, in injury time leaving the Mitchels ahead by 1-6 to 0-1 at the break.
Against the wind the Mayo champs defended that lead in an attacking sense. And none was found wanting Shane Irwin, Ger McDonagh, Donie Newcome and Byrne edging over the rest in defence, Barry Moran working hard in the middle of the field and Douglas, James Durcan, Fergal Durkan and David Stenson, grinding out the vital scores.
Four points apiece was the sum of the work of both sides in the second half. It wasn’t pretty. But for the Mitchels the job was done.
Cyril Moran RIP
SYMPATHY is extended to the family of Cyril Moran, a former Mayo minor footballer who has died. He won an All-Ireland Connacht Colleges medal with St Jarlath’s in 1974 and played senior football for Mayo briefly in the seventies.