HOLDING ON TIGHT Mayo’s Matthew Ruane protects the ball from Roscommon’s Ultan Harney during Saturday’s Connacht U-21 FC Final. Pic: Sportsfile
A RIVETING contest with numerous twists and turns that even the great Alfred Hitchcock would have been hard pressed to script as Mayo defeated an impressive Roscommon side in the final of the Connacht U-21 Football Championship final at Markievicz Park, Sligo on Saturday evening last.
In doing so, Mayo won the title for the first time since 2009, against a Roscommon side that was appearing in their seventh successive Connacht final.
The ingredients were there for a thrilling match, and both sides didn’t disappoint as they delivered a magnificent spectacle despite the difficult conditions.
Both management teams kept their pre-match selections close to their chests as Roscommon’s Ultan Harney and Mayo’s Liam Irwin took up starting positions despite not being named on the programme. As it transpired, both would play significant roles.
From the first moments, the Rossies were simply brilliant as they totally dominated the play.
They took control of the game in the opening quarter, and with their superb support play, they opened the Mayo defence all too easily.
Harney was at the vanguard of most of their best work. He played a third midfielder thereby lending support to an already strong combination in Tadhg O’Rourke and Cathal Compton.
In addition, most of the Rossies play was directed in the direction of Diarmuid Murtagh. The St Faithleach’s man struck a mortal blow after just three minutes when he fielded a Cathal Compton centre and finished low to the net.
It got worse for the boys in green and red as Murtagh, Henry Walsh and Ronan Daly added points to see the Rossies lead by 1-3 to 0-0 after eight minutes.
Mayo eventually registered a score when Fionán Duffy landed a smart point after ten minutes. Just as quickly, Harney replied with a lovely point in reply. As the game evolved, Mayo gradually found their feet, even if their play lacked the cohesion or panache of Mark Dowd’s men.
Points from Conor Loftus (a free), and a truly inspirational point from a Liam Irwin 45’ kept Mayo in touch.
In between, Roscommon’s Henry Walsh missed a glorious chance of a goal when he found space behind the opposing defence. Mayo goalkeeper Matthew Flanagan must take credit for forcing him out wide, and also for denying Murtagh with a stunning save early in the second half.
Two Roscommon points from Murtagh and Ronan Daly kept Roscommon in the ascendancy, but Liam Irwin landed another bomb from a 45-metre free to keep Mayo in touch, if only just.
Roscommon were dealt a cruel blow just before the break when they lost their inspirational full-back Seán Mullooly to a black card. The holders led at half-time by 1-6 to 0-4, an advantage which was fully deserved.
Mayo was a transformed unit after the break as they took the game by the scruff of the neck. Obviously management had identified Roscommon’s ability to create space and they took the necessary remedial action to counteract it.
Compared to his influence on the game in the opening half, Ultan Harney never exerted the same influence afterwards. To further compound matters, Cathal Compton retired injured six minutes into the new half.
The Mayo half-back line of Michael Hall, Stephen Coen and Shairoze Akram really put the shackles on their opposite numbers. Matthew Ruane and Diarmuid O’Connor improved as the game progressed, with Fergal Boland, Liam Irwin and Fionán Duffy ever dangerous in attack.
Mayo kicked 1-7 during the half, and restricted their opponents to 0-4, giving an indication of their dominance. Conor Loftus landed two points from frees, with Fergal Boland kicking a great point from distance. Brian Reape, Liam Irwin (a huge free kick), and Fionán Duffy added further points to cut the gap to the bare minimum.
A Brian Stack point sent Roscommon two to the good and seemingly on their way to their third title in a row. Then, three minutes from time, Irwin somehow fisted a James Carr cross to the net to send Mayo ahead for the first time in the game.
With excitement reaching fever pitch, Murtagh displayed his composure by landing a pointed free to tie the game.
With extra-time looming, Michael Plunkett kicked a magnificent point two minutes into injury time to win the game for Mayo.
It was a win that didn’t seem likely early on but was made possible by a defiant Mayo side that displayed spirit, true grit and determination.
Praise is due to the management for rectifying weaknesses apparent in the Leitrim game, and for taking the hard decisions here too when they were required.
M Flanagan; E Doran, S Cunniffe, D Kenny; D Kenny, S Coen, S Akram; M Ruane, D O’Connor; F Boland (0-1), C Loftus (0-3, 3f), M Plunkett (0-1); L Irwin (1-3, 0-2f, 0-1 45’), B Reape (0-1), F Duffy (0-2).
Subs used; E O’Donoghue for E Doran; J Carr for C Loftus.
R Fahy; J Connaughton, S Mullooly, F Lennon; R Daly (0-3), K Beirne, B Stack (0-1); T O’Rourke, C Compton; K Farrell, H Walsh (0-1), B Kelly; D Murtagh (1-4, 0-2f), H Darcy, U Harney (0-1).
Subs used: M Daly for S Mullooly (black card); R Raftery for C Compton (inj); C Callinan for B Kelly; K Smyth for H Walsh.
Referee: J Molloy (Galway)