WE had begun to speculate about the future of Crossmolina, to ask ourselves had the old flair receded. Had the team that had broken so many records, graced the playing fields of this country with their diverse talents, and brought distinction to their club and county, had they begun to fade as a football force? Could that defeat by St Brigid’s in the Connacht Club semi-final convince some of the old trustworthy veterans to call it a day?
If you were among the handful of supporters who turned up on their home pitch at midday on Sunday the answer would have been clear: Have no fear for Crossmolina.
To have watched them take the field on a cold, dank December day shorn of the services of Ciaran McDonald, Tom Nallen, Declan Keating, Damien Mulligan, Gabriel Walsh and Ronan Rochford, was to infer that the winning of the league might have to be deferred to another day.
But when their new blend of youth and experience got to grips with the game, and names which up to this had been on the periphery of the team played with the vitality and confidence of veterans, you could only stand in admiration at the wealth of talent elbowing for places on their various teams.
There is more than honour attached to being a playing member of the Crossmolina club. To be on their teams is to embody the pride of parish that is so quintessentially part of the GAA. In all of the grades their teams play with the passion that conviction generates as if it were a privilege to be selected. Their sweep of victories in this year’s Senior and Junior championships, together with their latest on Sunday - their senior league triumph – has now dispelled any residue of doubt about their stature as the most successful club in Mayo over the past decade.
Yes, we had wondered how well the club might survive in the white heat of championship fare when the old stalwarts called it a day, when there might be no more Nallens or McDonalds about. Brian Benson provided an insight of the future with a performance at full-forward that matched any the club has produced in recent years.
And at full-back they had in Jonathan O’Boyle a player with the potential to step confidently into the shoes of Tom Nallen whenever The Mayo News Club Star decides to call it a day. O’Boyle, at 22 years of age, was adept and assured in that vital position and everything he did had the mark of a future star.
There were others, too, who did not fail to disappoint manager Tommy Jordan. Michael Gallagher, Noel Hegarty, Colm McDonnell and Paul Duffy repaid the manager’s confidence in them with performances as reliable and clever as the more regular occupiers of those positions.
As in every match the strength of the opposition must be taken into account when assessing players. And the aspirations with which Crossmolina entered the match were not on offer to their opponents Moy Davitts. Their future in the league had already been assured. But the chances of outright victory had passed them by. The only advantage open to them on Sunday was to deny Crossmolina the third leg of their triple success.
It was not a day for rising early to fulfil a fixture the result of which was meaningless. Those who did, and that included almost all of the Moysiders’ squad, demonstrated their respect for the county champions not just by turning out but also by their endeavour to make it a game worth winning for the home team.
One man who would have been excused if he had failed to turn out was James Nallen. But then Nallen is the epitome of Crossmolina football, and a team without the Longford House man would feel his loss. He may be close to the twilight of a singularly successful career, but there are no signs of fatigue or burnout. Maybe the reflexes are not quite as sharp, but the mind is as willing and gifted as ever.
Nallen is the model for the younger members of his team, and if Sunday’s game is any yardstick they are learning from the great man, learning from his measured deliveries, his character, his very presence among them.
Questions about Nallen’s ability to sustain the high level of football to which he has been accustomed for more than a decade have been floating around for the past year or two. But it is clear that he has no intentions of succumbing to the demands of time. He’ll be out there again next year pledging his dedication to club and county, as eager for football as if he were donning a jersey for the first time.
So, too, with McDonald. The leathery nature of his physicality lends longer life to his football career. Like his club colleague he is now at an age when every further year in football becomes a bonus and, perhaps, when he will want to make each of them count.
The All-Ireland final might have tested his motivation, but with John O’Mahony now at the helm the incentive to continue will be greater than ever. Interest is certain to grow again as the new manager unveils his plans and his methods to players in general. And Crossmolina will share in his decision to continue.
The Moy men are big and strong, and for a while more than held their own on Sunday. Their lack of fitness eventually caught up with them, and the more polished home side outpaced and outmanoeuvred them having had in preparation the incentive of winning the league title. Still there was no lack of effort on the part of former Mayo star Gary Ruane or that of James Mulderrig or Brian Hughes or Brian King or Fintan Molloy. All of them worked tirelessly.
The big surprise was, however, the performances of Crossmolina’s younger set. At 20 years of age Brian Benson turned in a performance that belied his years. All year he has been prominent in attack. On Sunday without the cerebral promptings of Ciaran McDonald, the full-forward compensated excitingly. They have been learning the little flicks and feints from their star tutor, and the deft touches of Benson and Padraic Syron left no one in doubt about their potential.
The manner in which each scored his goals must have been a huge source of satisfaction to manager Tommy Jordan following the defeat of his side by St Brigid’s in the Connacht semi-final. Their defeat in Hyde Park has been attributed by some to an overdose of football, especially to the drawn county senior final with Ballaghaderreen which forced them to a third Sunday of tough, competitive fare. But when you consider how the Roscommon side accounted for favourites Corofin in the Connacht final you are faced with the stark truth that there was more substance to St Brigid’s than they were given credit for.
Complacency, too, may have contributed to the wrecking of their ambitions of winning another provincial title . . . and maybe much more. But watching their young men perform on Sunday, expectations of an early revival of their All-Ireland dreams must be high.
Methodically, they went about breaking down the Moy Davitts defence. They played the wings cleverly and speedily and the visitors were forced to concede frees which Benson relentlessly punished. He scored five of their seven points in the first half, and barely three minutes into the second half killed off the visiting challenge with a skilfully controlled goal. He got the ball behind the defence, and with the keeper off balance delightfully directed its flight with his left foot to the corner of the net.
He did score one further point after that goal, bringing his total to 1-6, but all the time contributing to several of their successful raids on the Moy defence. It was his frontline colleague, Padraig Syron, who finished off their opponents in the dying minutes when he cracked home their second goal... Johnny Leonard providing him with the opportunity.
High ratings, too, for new wing backs Michael Gallagher and Colm McDonnell who commanded their positions with genuine authority, and who will be difficult to displace when action resumes in the spring. Of course without the experience of regular warriors like Peadar Gardiner, Stephen Rochford, Paul McGuinness and Nallen, the young ones might not have flourished. The value of a proper blend of the new and the experienced was evident throughout the match.
Eamon Clarke, the county development officer, presented Peadar Gardiner with the winning trophy after the match, and praised Crossmolina for their outstanding run of successes throughout the year. Having won the county under-21 championship a couple of months ago, the future of Eamon’s Knockmore is also bright, and the keen rivalry between the two neighbours sure to keep us enthused in the coming years.