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Two challengers make early moves


BROTHERS IN ARMS Westport’s Finbar, Eoghan and Oisin McLaughlin are pictured after the win over Ballintubber in the Mayo SFC on Saturday evening at St Patrick’s Park. Pic: Conor McKeown

Seán Rice

OCEANS of speculation will follow this almost effortless win by Westport. It will have rated them among the favourites for the title. A stand-out side heading for glory.
In soaring to an eight points win over Ballintubber, they thrilled their supporters and could only have been admired by those of their opponents who had come to expect a much closer contest.
It was a one-sided display of power and energy from the winners, and a notice served on all would-be county champions that this is a team that also means business.  
In prancing around their home ground on Saturday evening, the fleetness and ball skill of the Westport men was the topic of conversation. A team young and hungry and endlessly elegant.
But they were all of those things last year, too. And the year before and maybe even the year before that. The team that promised so much, that sprayed so many grounds with their capacity for sublime football.
And ended up nowhere.
Time seemed to have caught up with so many of Ballintubber’s old stars on Saturday. Before they realised they were in a game Brendan Walsh was picking the ball out of his own net.
As the sun dipped towards the west in St Patrick’s Park the visitors’ performance dipped with it. They looked jaded and shorn of the potency that has kept them so long among the front runners in the county.
The Abbey men strove to mount some semblance of resistance as declining greats always do. But there wasn’t a lot left. The passion was missing. The old aggression.
They are not dead of course, not out of the competition by any means. But neither are they in rude good health.
And in celebrating their win, Westport ought to keep that in mind. Because even though they were not up against the strongest of opponents it was evident that traces of old flaws have not yet been entirely erased.
In that first half, no one could have stayed with them.  Those who watched were stunned by their gifted teamwork. But they failed to maintain the momentum after the break. Their flair faded somewhat, regressed into some unproductive feints and flicks . . . a kind of light touch arrogance.
It’s a warning because it has happened before. They began to showboat, to swagger a bit, to ease off and thus wipe some of the shine off what they had achieved. In reality to be as they have been in the past couple of years when after starting brightly they failed to sustain their challenge.
That first half was something to behold though. The speed of their countering, the swiftness of their passing, their points of distribution were true and electric.
And much of the probing was prompted by their evergreen Lee Keegan. But it was a huge team effort. And there was more to it than the Mayo star’s contribution. Their backline snuffed out pretty efficiently most of Ballintubber’s attempts on the posts.
And when Cillian O’Connor was forced to retire injured, there was no-one left with similar craft and experience to find a way past the rock built around the brilliance of Joe Grady, Rory Brickenden and Brian McDermott.
One other star in the defence was the source of many of the assaults that harvested big scores. Paul Lambert epitomised the flair of the team in general.  Barely five minutes had passed when the wing back set up the move that led to the first goal.
The attendance had scarcely settled into the game when Finbar McLaughlin delightfully finished that move and set Westport on their winning way.
And it was the same Paul Lambert thirteen minutes later who set up their second goal which Lee Keegan finished having taken the final pass from Mark Moran.
It was one-way traffic. Westport were like a hurricane rampaging around the pitch. Eoghan McLaughlin fired a shot across the face of the goal, Keegan had another great chance stopped by Brendan Walsh.
Against the wind, the storming hosts led by seven points at the interval. In no corner of the pitch were they found wanting. And a further splurge of goals seemed inevitable after the break.
But the impetus became less severe in the second half. Fear of humiliation stoked Ballintubber’s pride. Diarmuid O’Connor, Jason Gibbons, Keelan McDonnell and Finian Bourke rose to the call, and the flow from Westport was more fitful.
In the end they had scored only one point more than the visitors in the second half.

Knockmore have their authority challenged
HAS the might of the champions begun to wane, or are the Stephenites on the rise at last?
The question is posed in the wake of Ballina’s seven points victory over their close rivals on Sunday which follows Knockmore’s league final defeat to Castlebar Mitchels a few weeks back.
Little slips maybe. But worrying lapses for manager Ray Dempsey.
Being close neighbours and traditional feisty rivals this was expected to bring the best from both sides. Pride was the motivating factor. Bragging rights inflames them.
Following their disappointing draw with Ballaghaderreen in the opening round, Stephenites’ devotees now can’t be sure whether this is a genuine rebirth or a one-off performance in which they played above themselves.
Whatever it was, the townies were masters of this local derby. They now soar to the top of the table and the champs are left with something to think about.
Three brilliant goals killed off their hopes. The first came in the 29th minute when a perfect cross from centre-back Jack Irwin was met with a perfect fist by their big wing forward Dylan Thornton directing the ball to the back of the net. It put them two points ahead.
Evan Regan had their second, but the move was carved out by Conor McStay two minutes after the break. And it was also their talented centre-forward who finished off Knockmore’s hopes fifteen minutes from the end.
Out on the left wing McStay danced around the defence, shimmied and shunted and opened a gap for himself through which he guided the ball beyond the reach of Colm Reape in the Knockmore goal.
All well-worked goals by a driven team. In that second half when Knockmore felt the game slipping from them and raised the pace accordingly, we watched a classic.
The champions upped their effort and Ballina met them all the way. Superb work all over the field by Padraic O’Hora sparked a concerted surge from the challengers. The Irwin brothers Jack and Frank made huge contributions.
Young Sam Callinan at midfield, Conor McStay, Niall Feeney, Rory Tighe and Evan Regan tackled like never before and refused to bow to the fierce response from the visitors.
For some reason Knockmore’s big players failed to feature. Only Shane McHale in the first half, Aidan Orme, Peter Naughton and Adam Naughton reached any degree of normal form.
Their authority within the group is now being questioned.

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