THANKS be to all the different gods in modern Ireland for TG4. This marvellous, sumptuous County Final was really what Mayo football is about and it was there for all the country to see. Doubtless many would have tuned in to wonder anew at the type of fumbling ineptness which so unfortunately was what we displayed the last time we were in full public view. Weren’t they in for a pleasant surprise?
Played on a, well, generously grassed pitch, on the cusp of Winter, on a murky day which would surely have called for the lights to be switched on if they were in situ, this was a match which transcended all and every irritation. The level of skill, teamwork and sheer manliness which both teams displayed was a very pleasing reminder of the potential of Gaelic Football (on a weekend which we were once again subject to the folly of the hybrid game, but that’s a matter for another time).
Following hard on the antics in the Galway hurling final, we were witness to a demonstration of how it is possible to be defensively astute and effective without resorting to cowardly, macho intimidation. It is even very possible to be entertained by defensive excellence as manifested by the likes of Stephen Drake, Damien Mulligan and David Kilcullen, to mention just a few amongst many.
And it must have been so gratifying for those involved in coaching and management to observe players going so honestly about their business. Despite being subjected to torrid pressure from their immediate opponents, the likes of Ronan Rochford and Damien Syron stuck to their awesome tasks without recourse to ‘over-physical’ methods.
The pre-eminence of the team ethic is what was so striking about our county final this year. From the off, both teams sought to assert the positives of their particular approach, to win ultimately by using their strengths, while using all their tactical know-how to legitimately nullify those of their opponents.
So, for instance, while Drake was given the poisoned chalice of attempting to limit the input of Ciaran McDonald, he was still able to show what a fine footballer he is in his own right, going so far as to score a McDonaldesque long-ranger.
Ballagh’ looked intelligently for their two troublemakers inside, with angled kick-passes exploiting every one of those long leaves of grass. Their clever lay-offs, intelligent support play and awesome point kicking was a coach’s fantasy.
Crossmolina’s by now well-known, but so difficult to counteract, methodology was more measured, as one would expect from a team who have been there and done that for the past twelve seasons. Their dynamic, ground-eating runs through the middle from the roving Stephen Rochford, Peadar Gardiner and one real blast from the past by the still imperious James Nallen, supplemented by the probing passes of McDonald, seeking out the always available Joe Keane, Paul McGuinness and Brian Benson, were an intriguing counterpoint to Ballagh’s style.
Things didn’t always go perfectly of course. They don’t in county finals. It was ironic that one of the few high catches in midfield, by James Kilcullen, who otherwise had a very influential hour, should lead to Cross’s first goal.
For the neutral, it would have been a pity if the outcome had been determined, as it appeared it was going to be, by an incongruous act of impetuosity. Henry McLoughlin has many fine traits but I’m sure it would have been very hard to find anyone in Crossmolina openly expounding them if they had come up short. Just when Cross had clawed themselves back into a challenging position, and all seemed set for a dramatic final act in this drama, his rush of blood to the head appeared to deny us that.
As it turned out, of course, we got an even more dramatic finale then we could have hoped for. It was cruel for Ballagh’ as they appeared to have done all the right things after the sending-off, exploiting space, winning frees and taking their points.
But it could have been worse, as a few in Ballina could tell them. They are still one of two teams capable of winning this year’s title. And they have some considerable managerial nous on their line. The work on their psychological state would have started even as the final whistle was sounding.
What can one say about Cross? They have always had excellence as their goal, in their football and in their attitude. That’s what propelled Peadar Gardiner forward into the big square in the dying seconds of their last two games. They just don’t do panic or acceptance of what appears to be the inevitable.
Their time will pass soon, maybe even beginning next Sunday. But they have set a wonderful standard. If Ballagh’ become the team of the next twelve years (their evolution from underage is uncannily similar to that of their current rivals a decade earlier), they really have something to live up to.
Finally, a word of acknowledgement of the role played by the two managements in preparing their teams in such an exemplary manner. But, sure, it’s no more than one would expect from such serious (in the Aidan O’Brien sense of the word) football people. Roll on 1pm next Sunday.
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