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A tale of two senior semi-finals

Sport

SPOT THE BALL Ballina’s Sam Callinan competes for the ball with Ballintubber’s Alan Plunkett as David McHale and Brian Murphy watch on during Sunday’s Mayo SFC semi-final. Pic: Conor McKeown


Seán Rice

TOP scorers Frank Irwin and Evan Regan may have steered Ballina Stephenites into the Mayo senior football final, but it was their ‘Hell Week’ warrior Padraig O’Hora who inspired them.
When they were wilting in the first quarter under Ballintubber fire and brimstone, and they had hit their first stone wall of the championship, it was their centre-back who calmed and stabilised them . . . and heaved them over it.
Sagging under the pressure, their normal fluency disrupted, doubts had begun to creep into their game . . . until O’Hora by example played out for them what was missing.
Seventeen minutes had elapsed and Ballintubber, leading by five points to two, were playing all the football when O’Hora moved up field, tackled three defenders, won the ball, and a free which Evan Regan tapped over the bar.
After that spirited intervention Ballina took off, and inside the following three minutes they had turned the score around to lead by two points.
The sudden upturn in their pace also ruffled Ballintubber’s mindset. For what ought to have been a simple back pass to his goalkeeper, Diarmuid O’Connor’s kick somehow fell short. Conor McStay intervened, got the ball to Evan Regan and the full-forward needed only the half-chance to rifle the net.
From that moment, it became the toughest tussle the Stephenites have experienced on their way to the final.
It wasn’t pretty. Few opportunities came their way to exhibit the high water-mark football that had set them apart.
Ballintubber, as Ballintubber will, neutralised many of their stars, dug in, and prompted by the brilliance of Jason Gibbons in the middle of the field, forced the Stephenites to adapt to a different game plan, to call on reserves of latent energy that otherwise might have cost them the game.
They led by 1-5 to 0-6 at the interval, and Keelan McDonnell reduced that to a point seconds after the restart. And if Ballina were expecting any reduction in the passion of the Abbey men it was not forthcoming.
Even when Frank Irwin rattled home a penalty in the 41st minute to boost their lead to five points they struggled to shake off their feisty opponents.
Irwin’s accuracy was keeping Ballina in the game. In addition to the penalty his free-taking outscored their normal free-taker Evan Regan.
Not even when substitute Luke Doherty banged home another goal, superbly engineered by Regan in the 51st minute, did Ballintubber flinch.
Diarmuid O’Connor’s tireless work motivated them. The Mayo star was everywhere and three minutes before the end of normal time his industry was rewarded with a magnificent goal.
Gibbons started the move. Cillian received a perfect pass and his high centre was flipped into the net by Diarmuid.
There were still four points between them, Ballintubber still probing fearlessly; Ballina boldly resisting. Sam Callinan, Keith Tighe and James Doherty out on their feet; The O’Connors, Gibbons, Hugh Geraghty and McDonnell giving everything they had in a last minute bid to stun the favourites.
They had the gap cut to three points and as the seconds ticked away, David O’Mahoney was deemed to have fouled coming out with the ball. It was a chance, a slim chance. And Cillian did his best to get the draw.
But his shot whistled the wrong side of the posts.
And that was that.
O’Hora got sent off for a second yellow card offence near the end. What he really deserved was a medal for outstanding leadership.
Not a game for the purists. But Ballina held out and deserved their three-points win.

Westport leave it very very late
THE chaos of a two-minute highwire finish does not counterbalance what went before.
Not even the screwy possibility of a Castlebar Mitchels upset when they led for the first time three minutes into injury-time. Not even the incredible riposte by Westport substitute Shane Scott when he ballooned the net with the last kick of the game.
No, nothing can assuage the overwhelming disappointment of a lifeless contest which we thought was about to be a classic.
What became of the forensic football with which each reached the semi-final; the penetrating passes, the finely cut scores, the deft interventions?
A thrilling clash of natural talent was our expectation. What we got was a mishmash of sputtering performances and recycled football that would have pleased only the most rabid supporters of the winning side.
Castlebar were the outsiders. But they put it up to Westport, forcing them to eke out survival with a lot more difficulty than their myriad of collective skills would have envisioned.
They were ahead all the time . . . except for an insane moment in injury time.They were the better side, but never so far ahead to suggest an easy win.
Some nice scores by Lee Keegan and Conal Dawson set them on their way. But with the lethal Ethan Gibbons on target, and some piercing runs by Sean Morahan, the favourites looked susceptible to the eventual ambush that was to test their genuine steel.
It is something of a paradox that their defence held firm, allowing only one of the Mitchels’ original six forwards to score –  Ethan Gibbons who hauled in 1-4.
But unlike other occasions when much of the Port’s scoring originated in counter attacks, on this occasion they were stymied by the fast-tackling Mitchels.
Of course the Castlebar set-up was intended for that very purpose: blanket defence, recycling and fast breaks.
By half-time Westport were in front by two points. That was cut to one by Gibbons twelve minutes after the re-start. Twelve minutes of lethargic football.
Westport dominated, but no one bothered to charge the Mitchels’ rampart. Fionn McDonagh, in fairness to him, tried hardest. A couple of times he weaved his way through, and once it took the brilliance of goalkeeper Rory Byrne to deny him.  
But no one else came so close. And the game sauntered on within the Port clinging to an insecure lead. One point separated them entering injury time, prompting the Mitchels to raise one final effort.
Amid a goalmouth scramble Mark Cunningham was bundled over and referee Declan Corcoran was on the spot to award a penalty. A chance for Castlebar to win the game.
It was the 63rd minute when Gibbons was summoned to take the penalty kick. Seconds later the ball was hugging the Westport net. The Mitchels were ahead by a point. The shock of the championship was about to be announced.
It seemed a futile bid when the Covies went looking for redress. But Castlebar were slow to recover from the score that had them, too, dazed in disbelief.
From the kick-out the ball came swirling around their goalmouth. It bobbed aimlessly, legs scrambling to make sense of it, hands foiling hands, hands grabbing fresh air.
Out of the chaos the ball came to Shane Scott, not long in the game. In the space of a tiny crack the big man let fly and the roof of the net billowed.
Westport had won the day.

 

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