No national football competition has provided so much recurring fun since the rollicking 2010 senior football championship as this year’s U21 championship has — although last year’s U21 campaign went pretty close — and last Saturday in Ennis, we got a final that encapsulated all that was good about it.
It was full of thrills, its spare of spills, and even more scores. And yet for all the flair and skill on view, there was just as much grit and fight as well. At various times, both sides — for Cork made a magnificent contribution to this game and this competition throughout as well — had to show considerable resilience and poise to come from behind, such as like when the Rebels had to bounce back from a sticky patch after half-time in the Munster final against Kerry, and Mayo did so spectacularly against Roscommon and Dublin.
Ultimately and fittingly, the last surge of this glorious tournament came from the men in red and green.
When Cork drew level with five minutes of normal time to go, all the old ghosts and stereotypes of Mayo football were waiting to pounce.
Instead, this bold band of young men were the ones to do the pouncing, with two sublimely-taken and audacious goals.
Mayo football needed this. In many ways it has had a wonderful last five years, in which time their seniors have won an historic five provincial titles on the trot, and even more impressively, followed each of them up with five All-Ireland quarter-final victories in succession as well.
Multiple club teams have contested All-Ireland finals. But you take this year alone. All three AIB club finals — junior, intermediate, and senior — were contested and lost by Mayo sides.
Next week, the ladies footballers face off in a national league final against a Cork team seeking out a ninth league title and 11th All-Ireland since 2005. That’s not to mention the senior men’s championship, in which after last Sunday week, you could envisage only Tyrone stopping Mayo playing into September, and neither of them stopping Dublin in September.
After Castlebar’s collapse on St Paddy’s Day, it was as if Mayo teams would be better off not reaching All-Ireland finals if they weren’t to win them.
Now, Castlebar’s collapse belongs only to Castlebar. The county will be emboldened by the spirit and success of these U21s.
Of course, U21 success guarantees nothing. Mayo only needs to look across the county bounds into Galway and what little return they’ve got out of the triumphs of 2011 and 2013. Ultimately, U21 football is college ball; senior football is the equivalent of the NBA, and coming up against the likes of Aidan O’Shea and Keith Higgins, those Galway youngsters have routinely got dumped on their backsides, as if to be told: Welcome to the NBA.
What this crop of Mayo U21s though will have the benefit of is being surrounded by a nucleus of hard-nosed veterans who will relieve them of having to do too much of the heavy lifting too soon. The merits of Diarmuid O’Connor’s immersion into the senior setup were evident through this U21 campaign; already he is an extension of his brother, Cillian, who lest we forget, only turns 24 this year.
But equally these U21s will add to the senior setup in how it replenishes and eventually replaces a core nucleus made up of the 2006 U21 side that also beat Cork in Ennis in the final.
Mayo as a county still doesn’t produce two-footed players at the rate Dublin or Kerry do — but what this crop of 21s do have more than other recent, resilient Mayo sides is an extra daring and boldness upfront. Stephen Rochford will look to tap into that. No better way to keep the youngsters grounded than getting them in with the veterans, and no better way to invigorate the veterans than with some sprinkle of the audacity of youth.
Mayo people have had many great days out the last five years or so, and Ennis last Saturday was another one of them, not least because it suggests Mayo will continue to contend for the next five at least.
Of course, what they harbour most is that day of days. Will it come? Senior football is less forgiving. In September at that level you’re hardly going to be as fortuitous as to encounter such an out-of- sorts goalkeeper in a final; Stephen Cluxton does not gift goals and chances like that. But anyone watching how Stephen Coen played and presented himself and his group last Saturday, could you really doubt that he won’t some day complete the treble of winning minor, U21, and senior?