SFC GROUP 1
CENTRE-FORWARD Alan Plunkett preserved Ballintubber’s unblemished defence of their title so far with the winning point in the dying seconds of injury time at Crossmolina.
Trailing by four points with five minutes remaining the county champions staged a dramatic recovery to qualify for the play-offs as leaders of their group, having clawed their way back into a match they seemed destined to lose.
More importantly they did it without their talismen Alan Dillon and Cillian O’Connor, giving lie to the widely held view that without them the champions are a pale shadow of their title winning side.
But victory has come at a cost, for midway through the second half their free-scoring wing forward Padraig O’Connor was given a straight red card by referee Kevin Connelly, and will miss their next championship outing.
Crossmolina’s Paul Duffy suffered a similar fate minutes earlier for an off-the-ball incident involving Gary Loftus, a much more obvious transgression than whatever led to O’Connor’s dismissal.
Worst of all from a Mayo point of view, however, was the hamstring tweak that forced Peadar Gardiner to leave the field during the first half. How serious the injury is only time will tell, but it is something James Horan could do without as he prepares his charges for the tussle with Kerry on August 21.
Gardiner had been the outstanding player on the field up to then, inspiring Ronan Rochford, Jonathon O’Boyle, Declan Keating, Gabriel Walsh, Joe Keane and Stephen Rochford into high octane activity. In the heavy conditions under pelting rain they took a grip on the game with speedy, well-organised movements.
The departure of Gardiner changed all that. And while he was not the force one always associates with Crossmolina, Ciaran McDonald had also to depart the scene at the break, leaving the Deelsiders a much less potent side in the second half.
They led by 1-4 to 0-3 at the interval, having held on grimly after the boost of the goal in the 10th minute, a well-taken goal, delicately punted into the top right-hand corner of the net by Joe Keane benefiting from the ground work of Stephen Rochford, McDonald and Brian Benson.
Ballintubber’s recovery had its origins in a direct switch between midfielder Michael Nestor and full-forward Kevin McGuinness, from which both players profited. That move and the rediscovery by Jason Gibbons of his best form after the break, together with the individual excellence of Danny Geraghty, Cathal Hallinan, Gary Loftus and Damien Coleman sparked the flame.
If without Gardiner Crossmolina’s control declined somewhat, it did not take from a stirring defence of their lead, and the growing determination of the champions to preserve their clean record.
The rain cleared and the tempo increased. The intense exchanges resulted in points by McGuinness, Coleman and Gary Dillon for Ballintubber, and Benson, Keane and James Cafferty for the home side . . . seemingly set to dent the pride of the champions.
Time was running out, and the collective hard work of Ballintubber in general looked to be in vain until the sprightly Gary Dillon fired the ball in high from a sideline kick in the 54th minute, and Nestor was on hand to knock it into the net.
It set the scene for an almighty effort that was capped with points by Loftus and Plunkett each bearing a clear statement of intent from the champions.
B Walsh; G Loftus (0-1), C Hallinan, L Tunney; T Earley, D Geraghty, M Kelly; M Nestor (1-0), J Gibbons; P O’Connor (0-1f), A Plunkett (0-1), G Dillon (0-2); T Kilcoyne, K McGuinness (0-2), D Coleman (0-1).
Sub used: M Hoban for Kelly.
D Syron; S Duffy, R Rochford, J O’Boyle; P Gardiner (0-1), M Leonard, D Keating; G Walsh, C McDonald; D Hegarty, J Keane (1-1), C Carolan (0-1); J Cafferty (0-1), B Benson (0-3fs), S Rochford.
Subs used: C Myles for McDonald; P Duffy for Gardiner; C McDonnell for S Duffy.
Referee: K Connelly (Hollymount/Carramore)