GREAT GOAL Crossmolina captain Peadar Gardiner taks to TG4’s Michéal Ó Domhnaill after last Sunday’s Mayo SFC Final.
Second helping worth the wait
IT had never been a classic . . . the persistent rain saw to that. But neither was it ever less than entertaining as the outsiders plotted a path towards their first senior title in 34 years. Three points ahead as the final minute of injury time ticked over, nothing, we thought, could salvage for the reigning champions a game in which they always trailed.
Not even Ciaran McDonald.
The trusty left foot of the most creative of footballers had been a little less persuasive for much of the hour now dying. And as he contemplated how best to use the ball from the forty-yards free that Crossmolina were awarded, the ideal result for them was to us mortals patently hopeless.
But McDonald is no ordinary mortal on the football field. His side were trailing by three points. Nothing but a goal would lift their fading title hopes. A greasy ball would be difficult to control. He would have weighed up that, and every other possibility, as he drilled the ball chest high towards the Ballaghaderreen goal.
The ball dipped slightly in flight and glanced wickedly off the outstretched hand of Peadar Gardiner - finding perhaps the only millimetre of space left by the Ballaghaderreen defence - into the top corner of the net.
That deflection could have gone anywhere, but it is to their credit that Crossmolina, a ragged scrap of the Crossmolina we have known, stuck with their challenge to that vital last moment. It was a fluke, but flukes are counted, and it provided the champions with a chance to flush from their system the memory of a performance that should have ended in their dethronement.
Ballaghaderreen, like almost everyone who watched, were stunned. Fate was not kind to them. They had been the better side by far. And when Crossmolina battled back to come within a point of them halfway through the second half, they held their nerve, pulled a little extra from muscles sucked of their energy by the heavy, sticky conditions, and nosed into a lead that everyone must have thought had secured them their first title in 34 years.
The difficulty for them now is to recover their poise and self-belief in time for the replay . . . at McHale Park again, on Sunday (1pm). It was a shattering blow. To have been on the run-in to victory, to have wasted no effort in their bid to bridge that decades-old chasm . . . and to have it all undone with one fortuitous stroke of a fist by the champions must have been demoralising.
They are in good hands, however. John O’Mahony will have lifted the gloom come the weekend, and we can expect another performance on Sunday as impressive and as competent as they produced in the drawn game.
There was a dash to them from the beginning that bore no signs of inferiority. The greater experience of Crossmolina was expected to be the highest hurdle for Ballaghaderreen to cross - and what Crossmolina produced in that final kick could only be attributed to experience, a sanguine throw of the last dice – yet Ballagh’ played with the confidence of a team accustomed to county finals.
Within six minutes they had rattled in a goal and a point, and the holders were soon smarting under the pressure of Ballaghaderreen’s resolve. As expected, they moved Stephen Drake from the wing to centrehalf back in a bid to curb the danger Ciaran McDonald posed. In dealing with the wizardry of the Crossmolina celebrity a certain success is all you can hope for. You sacrifice your own game in order to concentrate on reducing the effectiveness of the Mayo star.
Drake will have been well pleased with the outcome of the task entrusted to him by John O’Mahony. He did have the benefit of the driving rain in helping to rein in McDonald’s roving instincts. And in confining him to a scoreless hour from play, the Ballaghaderreen man was not forced to resort to any untoward practice.
But before Drake’s policing took effect McDonald had woven a little of his magic in breaking through the Ballagh’ defence and coming close to a goal worthy of his skills. Peadar Gardiner, Crossmolina’s top performer this season, had stolen a march up field, and released a perfectly timed ball onto which McDonald ran. But in the time it took for the ball to reach his lethal left foot an equally well-timed shoulder from a defender spoiled the opportunity. It was their best chance of the first half.
Ballaghaderreen, playing with the help of the wind, were more purposeful, more polished even. Derek Moran had already opened their account with a point from play. And in the sixth minute Andy Moran produced all of his county schooling to grab their goal. The work that led to it was more impressive that the goal it deserved. Midfielder Barry Kelly set the move in motion down along the right wing. Michael Solan joined in, and so did Barry Regan from whom the well-placed cross came for Moran to finish.
Crossmolina crept back into the game with three successive points, two by Joe Keane, the other by McDonald. And their four-point total for the first half all came in a seven-minute period during which Keane was the biggest threat to Ballagh’s hopes of the title. During those rare moments of ascendancy Paul McGuinness was gifted a beautifully measured pass by McDonald, but was denied by the bravery of Ollie Flanagan in goal.
Neither that nor the McDonald miss earlier in any way diminished Ballagh’s conviction. They always had the edge in the vital places. Barry Kelly and James Kilcullen were winning the midfield battle where James Nallen was not without certain success, due mainly to the support he received from Stephen Rochford acting as a third midfielder. But Kelly’s workrate was most impressive, while Kilcullen ‘s fielding was also crucial, and as a pair their different talents complemented each other.
Driving rain robbed the game of a lot of the skills associated with both sides. But each made up in spirit and plain grit what the rain ruined, and the second half was barely nine minutes old when the whole thing sprang to life with a brilliant Crossmolina goal. It originated in a melee caused by a short Ballagh’ kickout, out of which the ball emerged via Paul McGuinness and Stephen Rochford, and which, fittingly, their most industrious forward finished adeptly.
That was the test of Ballaghaderreen’s nerve. And the answer came within a minute when Derek Moran, their best forward, glided the ball between the posts at the other end. There would be further need of similar responses to Crossmolina’s probing before those last dramatic seconds.
No one probes better than Peadar Gardiner. His lightening runs down the wings kept the champions’ hopes alive when it looked as if their resistance was about to crumble in the face of the impressive work of Barry Regan and Derek and Andy Moran.
At the other end Gary Conway was an influential figure, together with Drake, in the Ballagh’ half-back line. Joe McCann and Thomas Regan also defended grittily.
Crossmolina did suffer a setback when substitute Henry McLoughlin was red-carded for a heavy tackle on Gary Conway midway through the second half. His loss was one of the reasons for Ballaghaderreen’s better showing in the final minutes, but it does not dilute their overall control.
They were unfortunate to have experienced that bitter blow when it seemed nothing could stop them from mounting the winners’ podium. But then when you pit your skills against the likes of the accomplished pair of Gardiner and McDonald you must be prepared to expect the unexpected.
So they meet again on Sunday. And the element of surprise which Ballagh’ had sprung and which Crossmolina survived may have a different bearing on the outcome. Complacency will not be a factor in Crossmolina’s approach while Ballaghaderreen will have learned first-hand of their opponents’ main strengths, apart from Ciaran McDonald.
John O’Mahony’s task is to banish any traces of despondency lingering from the draw, to whip up their confidence again, convince them they can win. It is a difficult task, but they have proved that there is enough talent there to meet the challenge. Crossmolina will not be expected to fail the second time round, but it could also be said that they may also have used up all their good fortune.