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Ballina back with a bang

Sean Rice
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Ballina back with a bang

Sean RiceSean Rice
WE were not prepared for this. A week after the fall of the champions, the ground vibrates again with the fall of the favourites. Through the barriers of the forgotten Ballina Stephenites crashed, a new swagger in their gait, and in their wake the crushed dreams of a team that had swollen the county’s preparations for the welcome of new champions.
The former champions had us fooled though. They had stumbled into the semi-finals in mediocre fashion. Their quarter-final tussle with Garrymore had failed to burnish old convictions. Nothing about their shape betrayed the hidden riches that gleamed before our eyes on Sunday.
Back was the old battle-hardened Ballina. In the long grass, they had waited for the right moment to strike, and with all the cunning of a predator they pounced. Ballaghaderreen did not know what hit them. Paralysed by the force of the strike and the depth of the Stephenites’ preparations, the favourites’ high hopes disintegrated.
From the throw-in Ballina’s rediscovered determination was evident. They fought for every ball with a hunger that had not been there all season. We had expected them to win the midfield test, but not the entire battle, a conclusion based on the performance of Ronan McGarrity in the quarter-final.
Almost alone, he had kept the green and red flag flying against Garrymore. As impressive as Barry Kelly and James Kilcullen have been, they could only play second best to so natural a midfielder as the Ballina man.
While McGarrity’s authority was stamped from the opening minute, it was not until Pat Harte joined him that Ballina moved with the rhythm of old. David Brady, back after injury, was not the ideal midfield partner. When the big man moved to full-forward,  though, he made his presence felt with two goals that came like solar plexus punches to Ballaghaderreen.
The first of those goals was a huge psychological boost not only for the manner in which Brady grabbed the high lob from Harte, but also for the timing of it . . . almost on the stroke of the break. It gave Ballina what no amount of talk in the dressing room could achieve . . . the boost of an unexpected interval lead that seemed to have disappeared when Brady’s brother, Ger, drilled another Harte set-up wide a few minutes earlier.
In fairness to the East Mayo men, they did not concede easily. Their top scorer Barry Regan did get them back on track in the 14th minute with a goal inspired by Andy Moran.
Yet, it was not to be Moran’s day. A minute after the re-start the Mayo star was presented with a chance to regain the lead, but failed to convert a penalty awarded when Pearce Hanley was fouled in the square. He did make amends for that miss with a goal in the 25th minute, his only score of the game.
The chance of a dramatic winner also fell to the luckless Moran seconds from the end, but the fortuitous intervention of Colm Leonard diverted the ball away from the net. The Ballina man had instinctively fallen back to cover his goal as Moran struck for the net . . . only to watch as the ball bounced harmlessly off the Ballina man and away from the goalmouth.
McGarrity deservedly won the man of the match award. But in close contention also were Eanna Casey, playing his best football for years, Kenny Golden, so solid at corner back, Enda Devenney, Pat Harte and Stephen Hughes. In essence it was a team victory, but those six stood out.
Ballaghaderreen’s disappointment was palpable. Having crushed all opposition all year, a dark haze now hangs over their season. But they have got to come back. Their real character will be reflected in their ability to put the lessons of this defeat to better use next season.
Charlestown were almost as hotly fancied to reach the final following their comprehensive victory over the reigning champions Crossmolina in the quarterfinal. But they were made fight all the way at MacHale Park to earn a draw with Knockmore, whose traditional fighting qualities had them in unexpected, hot contention throughout the hour.
Sharpshooter Paul Mulligan did have the opportunity to snatch the winner from a free with the last kick of the game, but the ball drifted wide and Knockmore won a worthy replay.
In comparison to the other semi-final this had neither the quality nor the fervour. But the experience of Crossmolina and Ballaghaderreen precludes us from indulging in any emphatic prediction of a favourite. Ballina may be on everybody’s lips, but only when Colm Leonard lifts the Moclair Cup will I believe it.
Nor can one be certain that their opponents will be the team that dethroned Crossmolina. At no stage in Sunday’s encounter did Charlestown produce the standard of football that had overwhelmed Crossmolina a week earlier.
It was their third difficult game in a row, and that may have accounted for Charlestown’s sluggishness. If so, they will find it even more difficult in next weekend’s replay to reach the standard they set themselves in the quarter-final.
Knockmore had the freshness of a few weeks to prepare for the semi-final and they may have the edge in sharpness for the replay at MacHale Park on Saturday. The two are pretty evenly matched, but Charlestown finished the stronger side. That’s no guarantee, however, of victory in the replay.

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