TEAM EFFORT The Mayo squad celebrate victory over Armagh in the Nicky Rackard Cup Final at Croke Park last Saturday. Pic: Sportsfile
THE sheer joy on the face of Keith Higgins as he raised the Nicky Rackard Cup on the Hogan Stand on Saturday evening touched hearts of Mayo GAA followers everywhere. If ever a Mayo man deserved to walk up those steps in victory, it was the dual star from Ballyhaunis.
After all the heartbreak, frustration and disappointments of the last decade in senior football, one can only imagine how Keith felt when it came to his turn to hold the cup aloft … and how the cheering followers responded in style.
From start to finish, this showdown with Armagh was in the balance. It was gripping and intense. Along the sideline, JP Coen and Liam Donoghue never relented in exhorting their team, while the other members of the management panel – Derek Walsh, David McConn, Tommy Feeney and Tom Phillips – kept watchful eyes on this ding-dong encounter.
Fate smiled early on Mayo this time. From deep in his own half, Keith Higgins floated a great clearance down towards the Hill 16 end of the field. Seán Regan foraged hard to win the ball, weaved through the defence, before finding Darren McTigue, who offloaded to Shane Boland. His effort was blocked, but McTigue was on hand to sweep the ball to the Armagh net.
Armagh shook off the early blues of a goal concession with two excellent strikes from Ryan Gaffney and David Carvill. Ten minutes in Kenny Feeney posted his first score of the day, a sweet strike after taking a good pass from Seán Regan.
It was the score that saw Feeney stake a claim in Croke Park and the opening salvo in what was to be a display that was at the heart of Mayo claiming the honours on the biggest stage of all.
The end-to-end nature of the encounter was suitably reflected in the half-time score of 1-6 to 0-9. Kenny Feeney accounted for three further points, with Joe McManus and Seán Regan showing an array of skills in securing valuable scores. Cathal Freeman came within inches of a second Mayo goal when his dipping effort came back off the post following a fine run through the Armagh defence.
Declan Coulter was on target with a number of superb scores from play for Armagh with Ryan Gaffney, David Carvill and Eoin McGuinness all finding the range as well.
Armagh hit the front in style when the imposing Eoin McGuinness riffled the ball to the Mayo net after a neat lay-off from Declan Coulter seconds after the resumption. Mayo needed a swift response and a fine point from Shane Boland, coupled with a converted free by Feeney, settled nerves again.
Fergal Boland was sprung from the bench and the Tooreen man made a massive contribution for the rest of the game. With his first touch, he floated over a magnificent point from the Cusack Stand side to tie the game.
Armagh edged two clear again before Keith Higgins made a brilliant interception when an Armagh goal looked on. It was a game-changer and came during a period of Armagh dominance when the blocking skills of some Mayo players, and especially Ger McManus and Higgins, were exemplary.
Feeney’s point from a free was followed by a sensational score from Fergal Boland and the teams were level again entering the final 15 minutes. Mayo cheers rose from the Hogan Stand when Cathal Freeman’s long-range free was superbly caught by Kenny Feeney, who turned and swivelled into space before despatching the ball to the Armagh net.
Gutsy Armagh reeled Mayo back in with points from the full forward line of Coulter, McGuinness and Corvan. Another long-range point from Feeney was cancelled out by Gaffney’s free.
But Mayo hit the last four in a pulsating finish. Kenny Feeney and Seán Regan had the Mayo supporters on their feet with two great points and Corey Scahill showed real class in landing the clinching point from over 50 yards.
Brian Hunt, a stalwart of the team, had the honour of raising the cup amid scenes of great jubilation. Donal O’Brien took things in his strike, effecting one fine save in the process. The full-back line of Hunt, Ger McManus and Eoghan Collins coped admirably with Armagh’s most potent line of attack.
It was a special day in so many ways for Cathal Freeman, and everyone in Mayo GAA circles was thrilled for him as he came up the steps of the Hogan Stand. Kiltimagh man Ciarán Charlton and dual player David Kenny put in solid displays around the middle of the field, with Padraig O’Flynn and Austin Lyons did well in defence.
This was a day to cherish in the annals of hurling in Mayo. When past glories are remembered in years to come, the achievements of this team will command a special place in the hearts of hurling folk. They were the team that carved their own niche in Mayo hurling history.
D O’Brien; B Hunt, G McManus, E Collins; C Freeman, P O’Flynn, A Lyons; D Kenny, C Charlton; J McManus (0-1), K Higgins, S Regan (0-2); S Boland (0-1), K Feeney (1-9, 0-6f), D McTigue (1-0).
Subs used: P Connell for A Lyons; F Boland (0-2) for D McTigue; C Scahill (0-1) for P O’Flynn; K McDermott for B Hunt; G Nolan for S Boland.
S Doherty; C Clifford, A McGuinness, C Devlin; J Corvan, N Curry, C Toner; K McKernan, S Renaghan; R Gaffney (0-4, 3f), C Carvill (0-1), D Carvill (0-2); D Coulter (0-5), E McGuinness (1-1), C Corvan (0-2).
Subs used: J King for S Renaghan; P McKearney for J Corvan; O Curry for D Coulter.
Referee: J Murphy (Limerick)