SING WHEN THEY’RE WINNING The Mayo squad celebrates in the dressing-room after Saturday’s All-Ireland under 21 final success.Pic: Arthur Ellis
THIS was a win born out of an indomitable spirit, courage, determination, self-belief, and no little skill.
This Mayo team has been faced with varying degrees of adversity throughout the campaign; Leitrim, Roscommon, and Dublin had all posed difficult questions in the earlier rounds of the competition. Invariably, Mayo had answered all the questions. Last Saturday evening at Cusack Park, Ennis was no different, as a highly-vaunted and talented Cork team threw the ball around wand threatened to overwhelm Mayo at times.
But the words of former US Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur – “It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it” – could certainly have applied to the Mayo under-21 team. They are at their best when the dice is loaded, and loaded it was at different stages of an enthralling contest that drew gasps of amazement from friend and foe alike.
Mayo was forced to line out without full-forward Brian Reape through injury, prompting James Kelly to come into the defence and Michael Plunkett starting in attack, where he showed his versatility with a creative and inventive display in a pivotal role.
Cork opened the scoring with a pointed free in the first minute from Seán O’Donoghue. Subsequent attacks from the Rebels gave an indication of their reliance on their full-forward line as they tried to find Peter Kelleher in particular. However, Mayo had their homework done on the rangy attacker as the defence surrounded him like bees around a honeypot.
After Cork’s initial impressive opening salvo, Mayo warmed to their task. Michael Plunkett opened their account with a great point on six minutes after Sharoise Akram set up the chance.
Four minutes later, Matthew Ruane scored an inspirational point after Stephen Coen had turned over a Cork attack. Worryingly, however, Mayo kicked nine first-half wides, some of them from easy chances.
After Conor Loftus (a free) and Michael Plunkett landed points, Cork played some delightful football culminating in their scoring five unanswered points – two from Ryan Harkin, and one apiece from Seán O’Donoghue (free), Brian Coakley and Peter Kelleher. Cork led by 0-7 to 0-4, and Mayo didn’t score for 14 minutes.
Then everything changed dramatically as Mayo stunned Cork with two goals in first-half injury time. The first arrived when Shairoze Akram regained possession. Through sheer persistence, the ball was sent across the goal via Liam Irwin and Michael Plunkett, before Diarmuid O’Connor flicked it to the net.
Liam Irwin’s free two minutes into injury time put Mayo a point to the good. It would get better. Diarmuid O’Connor turned over a Cork attack, and Michael Plunkett set up Liam Irwin for a great goal. Rather than being three points behind at half-time, Mayo led by four, on a score of 2-5 to 0-7. The transformation was a huge psychological blow to Cork as they went to the dressing-room.
Cork rattled off two points in as many minutes in the second half, scored by Seán Ó’Donoghue (a free) and Ronan O’Toole. The ensuing play was dramatic and full of incident. Liam Irwin converted a 45’ into a strong breeze after Conor Loftus had a searing drive deflected around the post.
At the other end Kelleher’s shot was touched onto the post by Matthew Flanagan. A Brian Coakley free for the Rebels brought Cork back on track. Then a strong Coen run saw Plunkett somehow pick out Loftus in a tight situation. The Crossmolina man nearly tore the net with an unstoppable drive.
Cork lost their influential midfielder Seán White to a black card midway through the half. However, they laid siege to the Mayo goal, and Peter Kelleher fisting a Seán O’Donoghue free to the net. When Brian Coakley pointed a free to leave Cork a point adrift, things were looking good for the Rebels.
A Conor Loftus free which was brought forward 20 metres after a shrewd intervention from Liam Irwin left Mayo two ahead. Two Cork points from Michael Hurley and Brian Coakley (a free) brought the teams level at 3-7 to 1-13.
Cork goalkeeper Anthony Casey then tried to pick out a defender with a short kick out; Conor Loftus read the situation brilliantly and duly found the net with a left-footed bullet.
The cheering had hardly died down when Liam Irwin deflected a Morgan Lyons cross to the net to make the impossible possible. Just before the end, Seán O’Donoghue pointed a 45’ for the Leesiders.
Mayo’s play in the final minutes was simply majestic as they played with abandon.
This was one of Mayo’s finest ever wins. It was achieved by a wonderful group of young men who are a credit to the county, their families and themselves.
Mayo’s management team has moulded together an All-Ireland-winning team in six months, and in the process they have shunned praise or the limelight. Let us thank them and salute them.
M Flanagan; E O’Donoghue, S Cunniffe, D Kenny; S Akram, M Hall, J Kelly; M Ruane (0-1), S Coen; D O’Connor (1-0), C Loftus (2-2, 0-2f), F Boland; L Irwin (2-2, 0-1f, 0-1 45’), M Plunkett (0-2), F Duffy.
Subs used; J Carr for F Duffy (44 mins); M Lyons for M Plunkett (56 mins); B Duffy for J Kelly (56 mins).
A Casey; J Mullins, M McSweeney, K Histon; E Lavers, S Cronin, K Flahive; S White, R O’Toole (0-1); S O’Donoghue (0-4, 3f, 1 45’), S Powter (0-1), R Harkin (0-2); B Coakley (0-5, 3f), P Kelleher (1-0), M Hurley (0-1).
Subs used: S O’Leary for R O’Toole (39 mins, inj); D Ó Duinín for S White (45 mins, black card); C Kiely for R Harkin (52 mins); S Sherlock for M Hurley (57 mins); D Quinn for M McSweeney (60 mins).
Referee: P Hughes (Armagh)