Minors spread rays of hope
WE had watched them sprout in the spring, and flower throughout the summer. And on a cool autumn evening in Longford, we saw the tears flow freely as they watched the cup they had come so close to winning presented to the Tyrone captain.
Heartbreak framed the faces of our minors. Their courage had captured the imagination of the country. And as we inched our way home from the midland town, the cloud of defeat hung less heavily around us. By their performance the minors had spread bright rays of hope for the future of Mayo football.
Replays don’t always live up to expectations. This one was among the exceptions. It had us squirming in our seats, electrified with drama, highwire stuff as opinions and hopes oscillated with every score, with almost every kick.
As early as the second minute, we froze as Stephen MacRory averted a Tyrone crisis, whipping a ball off the line that had spilled away from Aidan O’Shea as he tried desperately to get a finishing touch to it.
At the other end 15 minutes later Robert Hennelly was at the heart of the drama denying Conor O’Neill with an audacious piece of goalkeeping.
And as the final seconds of stoppage time ticked away, the melodrama deepened as Aidan Walsh, with nerves of steel, steered the ball from an awkward free between the posts to force extra time.
In between these tense, throbbing passages, a compelling saga was being unfolded. Lessons from the drawn game were put to good use, and, inevitably, the spotlight beamed on different actors.
Full-back Kevin Keane had done his homework. Paddy McNeice, who had troubled him no end in the drawn game, was not the same force in the replay. It is a measure of the young man’s ability that his plan to offset the full-forward worked a dream.
On the other hand, Kyle Coney, who is bound for the Sydney Swans AFL club, and who had been tamed by John Broderick in the drawn match, won the man-of-the-mach award on this occasion. Playing as a third midfielder, Coney scored five points, most of them from long range.
Well aware from the drawn game of the danger Aidan O’Shea posed, Tyrone’s plans clearly concentrated on cancelling out the influence of the Breaffy man. For a short while it looked as if they had charted his eclipse.
But as the game progressed, O’Shea’s authority steadily grew, and once again he delivered a high-powered performance, and was the greatest threat to the Ulster men.
The fear in Mayo now is that O’Shea will be offered a career in the Australian Football League and that like Pearce Hanley, the county will be denied the services of this talented youngster. It is a chilling possibility. And it should not be beyond the wit of the collective brains of the Croke Park authorities to devise a counter plan.
Tyrone’s iconic manager Mickey Harte has described this poaching of Gaelic players as a travesty and said steps must be taken to put a stop to it by way of incentives for young talent.
The Tyrone manager has also called for ties with the AFL to be cut and for an end to the compromise rules series which, he said, were only encouraging the cherry-picking of Gaelic footballers.
Mayo captain Shane Nally had his best game of the season, in the replay, and the manner in which he picked off a couple of points at crucial stages marks him out as player with bright senior prospects.
Eoin Reilly at centre half-back stamped his presence on the match much more impressively than in the drawn game. James Cafferty and Ger McDonagh had an even share of the midfield spoils, but Coney’s roving tactics won more of the breaks.
A noticeable feature of Tyrone’s play was the swiftness of their pounce on the breaks. Many of their scores came from their fast-breaking wing half-backs and from loose ball gathered around the middle of the field.
Their corner forward Conor O’Neill replaced McNeice as the danger man for Tyrone.
It took a magnificent save by Robert Hennelly to deny him in the first half. But he did eventually get the goal in the first minute of the second half of injury time that killed off Mayo’s chances of fulfilling their dream.
Hennelly will forever blame himself for providing O’Neill with the opportunity when the ball spun away from him as it dipped dangerously.
He ought not to feel any pangs of guilt. Were it not for his intervention on at least three occasions from close range, the game would never have gone to extra time.
The extra 20 minutes suited Tyrone. They had more stamina left, and stronger replacements. The force of their bursts through the Mayo defence, especially of Peter Harte, who was our choice of man of the match, was a feature of their play. His deep probes were always difficult to check.
The goal killed off the game, but not Mayo’s spirit. Even when all was lost, when not a wisp of hope was left, Mayo’s pluck was mirrored in their driving quest for some soothing symbol. James Cafferty found it with a goal that excelled Tyrone’s although it had much less consequence on the overall result.
But the midfielder’s fisted effort into the corner of the net did reveal the character of a team in which everyone played a vital role and which did Mayo proud.
In building this team and shaping them into a confident and skilled unit, manager Ray Dempsey and his selectors Tomás O’Grady, Kevin Beirne and Stephen Healy deserve the highest praise.
Those who watched them struggle through the early rounds in Connacht held out little hope for the minors. The manner in which they bowed out last Saturday is proof that Mayo’s football future has a secure foundation.
How they are handled from now on is of vital importance.
The beaten team of 2005 provided Mayo the following year with the nucleus of their All-Ireland winning under-21 side. If nurtured properly, greater senior talent ought to flow from Saturday’s side.